Chelsea clawed their way back into an exhilarating Champions League quarter-final tie with Real Madrid through some unlikely sources, but there was nothing surprising about the identity of the players that eventually booked Los Blancos’ place in the last four.
Backed up against the wall after a meek 3-1 defeat to a Karim Benzema-inspired Madrid in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, the defending champions were brilliant for much of a captivating return fixture, quieting the Santiago Bernabeu by showing control and composure that belied their plight.
Unlike in west London, where Madrid were afforded far too much possession and space, Chelsea commanded the midfield for long periods, the metronomic Mateo Kovacic – who completed 96 per cent of his passes and 98.5 per cent in the opposition half – playing a key role in what for a while appeared to be the undoing of his former club.
It was a midfielder who put Chelsea ahead on the night in the 15th minute, Mason Mount producing an unerring finish to beat the outstretched arm of former Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois after neat build-up play that saw him eventually teed up by Timo Werner – more on him shortly.
Madrid kept hold of the aggregate lead until the 51st minute when, after Luka Modric was incorrectly adjudged to have deflected a Reece James shot behind, Antonio Rudiger rose to steer a superb header from Mount’s set-piece delivery into the bottom-right corner.
The hosts were then the beneficiaries of controversy when Marcos Alonso had a goal ruled out for a seemingly unintentional handball, an incident that will surely have set in motion further heated debate about the current interpretation of that rule across living rooms and bars in both the English and Spanish capitals.
Carlo Ancelotti’s men never learned their lesson and were the antithesis of defensive solidity throughout a breathless contest, and they were punished by Werner 15 minutes from the end of normal time.
3 – Chelsea became just the second English team to score three goals away against Real Madrid in all European competition, after Manchester United did so in a 3-3 draw in the European Cup in May 1968. Valiant.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 12, 2022
Madrid lost possession inside their own half, Kovacic played Werner down the left side of the box and the often-derided former RB Leipzig star jinked his way past three challenges before sending a calm, albeit deflected, close-range finish beyond Courtois.
It took Werner’s tally to just 17 goals in 70 games in all competitions since his big-money move from the Bundesliga and looked as if it would be the defining moment – at least in goalscoring terms – of his Chelsea career so far.
Yet Werner’s hopes of being Chelsea’s saviour were thwarted by three men who have so often played that role for Madrid.
Five minutes after Werner silenced the home fans, Modric had them roaring in adulation, his sublime cross-field pass with the outside of his boot finding Rodrygo, who provided the finish the delivery deserved as his first-time volley left Edouard Mendy with no chance and forced extra time.
That was Modric’s 17th Champions League assist and his fourth this season, a tally only one of his team-mates, Vinicius Junior, has bettered.
It was Vinicius’ creativity that ultimately ensured Madrid had the final say.
Chelsea surrendered possession all too easily in midfield and Eduardo Camavinga sent Vinicius tearing down the same flank that brought Werner’s goal.
— The Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) April 12, 2022
Vinicius’ delicate right-footed cross was greeted gratefully and emphatically by first-leg hat-trick hero Benzema, who once again added the final gloss to a Champions League masterpiece with an unstoppable header that brought up his 38th goal of a remarkable campaign and the Brazilian architect’s sixth assist in the competition this term, tied with Leroy Sane for the most in the tournament.
As a pairing, Vinicius and Benzema have now combined for 15 goals in all competitions in a season that could yet come to a close with Madrid crowned as both Spanish and European champions.
Chelsea had plenty of opportunities during the remainder of the additional half hour to make it 4-2 on the night and at least force penalties, racking up 28 shots to Madrid’s 10 but with just seven of those hitting the target.
Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz and Jorginho will all rue chances they missed in a frantic finale as Chelsea’s reign as holders came to an end in an epic tale that, for Madrid, ended in pleasingly familiar fashion.
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