Chelsea took a step towards the third Champions League final in their history but they could have been halfway to Istanbul by now. A 1-1 draw is a result a manager would normally be happy to take home, especially against a club such as Real Madrid, an away goal providing a significant advantage. But when Chelsea touch down in London Thomas Tuchel would be entitled to wonder how his team still has so much work to do.
It was not just that Chelsea lost the early lead they had taken as the skies opened and thunder rolled; that they were caught on a corner, Karim Benzema providing a sensational finish; or even that they ended the night under pressure. They could have foreseen that. It was that those brief, final minutes of nerves, the ball skidding past Édouard Mendy’s post, were the first they had experienced during a night in which they had often taken Real Madrid apart without taking control of the tie.
If there was frustration there, there may be familiarity too, the explanation simple: this is Europe and this is Real Madrid, the ultimate survivors. They also have a goalkeeper Chelsea know well, a forward who is on a different plane and a defence that once again resisted, led by Éder Militão.
It takes something special to leave Madrid on the canvas. For a while it appeared that Chelsea might deliver that blow; now they must try again next week.
In the end, they managed only one goal, after 14 minutes, which began with Antonio Rüdiger. Deep and apparently going nowhere in particular, as he stepped forward almost absentmindedly, twice rolling the ball under his studs, he was waiting for the movement. Christian Pulisic provided it and Rüdiger clipped a lovely, almost lazy-looking pass that dropped behind the Madrid defence, where the American cut inside, dribbled round Thibaut Courtois, and smashed into the net past two men on the line.
It was a superb goal and it had been a superb start. Just 37 seconds had passed when Pulisic had first threatened to get in and there was no letting up, the attacker finding Mason Mount at the far post.
Four minutes after that Mount helped make a chance for Timo Werner, three yards out. The save from Courtois was as implausible as the finish was awful.
Every time Chelsea set off, and it was often, they sliced through Madrid. N’Golo Kanté repeatedly accelerated through, to the right and left Pulisic and Mount dashed into open space, the wing-backs overlapped. Chelsea were on a different level physically, their idea clear, Madrid barely able to breathe as blue shirts came at them from everywhere. When they did press, Chelsea worked past them into the pitch beyond.
But Madrid are the T-1000 hanging off the back bumper. Fail to kill them off and they will be back, however beaten they appear, however many pieces you have left them in. And while Chelsea had the lead, they did fail, Courtois following that stop at Werner’s feet by immediately saving again. Next César Azpilicueta’s ball in just evaded the German and then Dani Carvajal had to dive to block Ben Chilwell’s cross.
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Madrid were in trouble, overwhelmed. Twice in a minute Chelsea were away again; both times a simple ball to release Werner was over hit. Soon Chilwell was on the end of a delivery from Pulisic, Madrid cut open again.
And yet, there they were in the rearview mirror. Benzema, especially. Out of nowhere he smashed a shot against the post, then came the Madrid break and the corner that levelled the tie. The corner was played short: Toni Kroos to Luka Modric to Marcelo, whose diagonal delivery was headed back by Casemiro. Benzema, back turned, controlled with his head, spun and smashed a volley into the net.
Madrid were alive somehow, even as Chelsea continued to come at them, Werner just unable to get his head to Pulisic’s ball, Thiago Silva hitting wide, Mount racing away. On the touchline, Tuchel could not make sense of it. How was this not done?
If he feared the moment had gone, the momentum seemed to have done the same, Madrid able to wrest some control as the second half began, even though a neat flick from Kanté saw Werner fire off a shot blocked by Raphaël Varane. Much as the Chelsea manager shouted: “Go, go, go,” time passed in which the pulse slowed and the nerves eased. The rain did, too, a metaphor for the match. There were changes but they did not change much.
Mount hit a shot against Varane and then Hakim Ziyech almost found Kai Havertz. Not long after that, a better touch might have sent Havertz away from Varane. But there was no recovering the vertigo, even as the thunder started rumbling once more. Madrid had ridden out the storm and were still standing.
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