Football, bloody hell.
These were the thoughts of legendary Manchester United custodian Alex Ferguson, following his side’s dramatic injury time triumph over Bayern Munich in the 1999 European Cup final. The same sentiment could be used to describe Chelsea’s trip to Madrid last night, but perhaps from a place of slightly less jubilation.
It’s not often that a side comes to the home of the 13-time European Cup winners and comprehensively outplay them, but that is exactly what Chelsea managed to do. Aiming to maintain their 100% record against Real Madrid in knockout ties, the Blues were 11 minutes from securing the most unlikely of comebacks. It seemed for all the world that London’s finest had booked their place in the semi-finals of Europe’s elite competition when Timo Werner calmly slotted home late on – something in itself that seemed a minor miracle. We all know what happened next: the timeless Modric curling a peach of a ball into the box with his other-worldly right boot, which was dutifully finished by the young Rodrygo, followed by a stooping Benzema header in extra time to consign Chelsea to a gut-wrenching exit. This game went beyond score lines and stats though, and in these most uncertain of times for the Blues, this was a reminder of exactly what it is to be a part of the Chelsea family.
The first half went exactly to plan for Tuchel’s charges. Back in a more familiar 3-4-3 formation following the ill-advised switch to a back four for the Brentford game and parts of the first leg of this quarter-final tie, there were a couple of surprising inclusions for Chelsea. Timo Werner kept his place on the left side of the front line following his impressive performance against Southampton at the weekend, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek did the same, putting in an incredible shift at right wing-back, with Reece James monstrous yet again in his role as the right-sided centre back in a back three. The Blues choked the home side with their aggressive pressing patterns, so often forcing the ball back to Courtois, who in turn would hurriedly clear and present possession back to the away side. It took only until the 15th minute for Chelsea to capitalise on their over-whelming dominance. Following good build-up play by Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek, the ball fortuitously dropped to Mount off Werner’s thigh. The Cobham academy graduate needed no second invitation, exquisitely bending a bouncing ball first-time past the helpless dive of Courtois. It was the perfect start.
Chelsea continued to dominate proceedings without carving too many clear-cut chances for themselves, as the Londoner’s exited the pitch for half-time with their aggregate deficit halved to just the one goal. The second period got off to the perfect start with a towering Rudiger header from a delightful Mount corner evening the scores. The equaliser temporarily sparked Madrid into life, satisfying the baying home crowd with a couple of opportunities, first for Benzema then for Kroos from a free-kick. However, it looked as though Chelsea had completed a memorable comeback when flying left wing-back Marcos Alonso rocketed a dropping ball into the top right of Courtois’ goal with his weaker right foot, only for VAR to chalk off the effort due to the tiniest contact between ball and the Spaniard’s tucked-in hand. 5 minutes later it looked like that decision could have haunted Chelsea as Benzema had yet another free header, however this time the 2022 Balon d’Or favourite could only guide his effort onto Mendy’s upright.
Cut to the 75th minute and the most unlikely of heroes for Chelsea. A perfectly weighted through-ball from the imperious Kovacic (96 passes at a 96% accuracy to go with his two darting dribbles) slipped Timo Werner past Casemiro and Carvajal. Now to the tricky part. The German is infamous for slapping any chance he gets wide of the mark, or for being offside, or a combination of the two. However, on the grandest of occasions he was able to maintain the clarity of thought to cut past a sliding Casemiro, and then a well-placed David Alaba, before firing beyond Courtois. It looked as though the much-maligned forward had finally come good with a winner, following his impressive brace at the weekend. Much like the rest of the German’s Chelsea career however, upset was soon to follow. Five minutes later Modric picked out the perfect pass and that was the beginning of the end for an inspired Chelsea. Substitute Pulisic spurned two huge opportunities from perfect knockdowns from teammates and so this epic was to go to an additional half an hour of extra time.
96 minutes in, Chelsea had made only one change (Pulisic for Werner) and the fatigue from battling for every ball for an hour and a half was beginning to set in. Vinicius Junior was away on the left-hand side, possibly the only time he had been free of a relentless Reece James since the early minutes of the game. The Brazilian once again demonstrated his almost telepathic relationship with Benzema, hanging a perfect ball into the box for the French forward to convert, with Rudiger slipping at the vital moment. The game was far from over. Havertz had bustled with industry and intensity from the very first whistle, and almost caught out former Chelsea man Courtois (which would have delighted his numerous detractors in the fan-base), sprinting and straining to block what he thought would be an up-field punt from the goalkeeper following a heavy touch. However, the Belgian proved his class with a calm Cruyff turn to get himself out of what could have been a very high-profile blunder. Havertz had a much better chance to earn his side a deserved equaliser just minutes later, failing to bury a free header from a magnificent Reece James delivery from the right flank. Finally, it was Jorginho’s turn to snatch at a guild-edged chance at the death, failing to finish a ball from Ziyech from all of ten yards out and under little pressure. The final whistle went, with La Liga leaders Real Madrid clinching a place in the semi-finals.
However, as I wrote at the start of this article: this game was about so much more than the result – despite the fact that the Blues did actually win this match 3-1 after 90 minutes! The perfect story to sum up this game was embodied by Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Forever the nearly-man, talked up by a seemingly endless procession of Chelsea managers as the future of their midfield (despite never being given a consistent run outside of the Europa League), the Englishman put in an incredible performance, little over 12 months since being relegated as part of a poor Fulham side – offering a single goal contribution over his season there. Throw in the horrific ACL injury sustained in a charity match at the end of his first season of regular minutes at Chelsea, which forced him to miss out on a Europa League final as well as the academy revolution of the Frank Lampard era, it looked as though the Englishman was finished at Stamford Bridge, another sad story of wasted potential at the London side. However, given a run of games over winter following injuries to Kovacic and Jorginho, Ruben grew into his role as a deep-lying playmaker and excelled there for a month. His resultant downturn in form coincided with the general December malaise at the club and gametime has been hard to come by since. But following a majestic performance in an unusual right wing-back position on the South Coast on Saturday, Tuchel put his faith in him to thrive in the most intimidating of atmospheres. Seemingly assured by the immense defensive presence of Reece James on his inside, Loftus-Cheek ruled the right-flank with 4 crosses and 2 key passes, as well as playing a key part in Chelsea’s first goal and performing to a high level throughout both on and off the ball, his driving runs from deep a reminder of the dynamic presence he can be.
Mason Mount again silenced his doubters, with his 23rd and 24th goal contributions of the season (far and away the side’s most prolific player in this regard). The tireless midfielder put in a pressing performance for the ages, whilst finding the time to lay on a match-high 4 key passes and continued his impressive record against Spain’s most successful side, following on from his semi-final goal at the Bridge against the same opposition last year – so much for flat track bully! Reece James completed the triumvirate of academy players starting on such a huge stage. Following a yellow card for a professional foul on Vinicius Junior after getting beaten far too easily, the 22-year-old prevented the in-form winger from creating anything of note until extra time. This was summed up by his astonishing 8 tackles, three more than the next best on the pitch. Once again the Cobham graduate proved his world-class ability at right centre back, as well as bombing forwards to provide precise crosses and a thunderbolt effort which led to the corner from which Rudiger bagged Chelsea’s second.
Finally, there were a couple of stories of redemption on an extraordinary night for Chelsea. Coming into April it seemed as though Timo Werner’s head was fixed solely on his new club (thought to be Borussia Dortmund), as he shirked challenges all over the field and failed to impress during a six-month league goal-drought. However, the German seemed a man reborn following his confidence boosting double against the Saints, and he made threatening runs all night. Loftus-Cheek failed to release Werner on a couple of occasions, but when he was finally given his chance by Kovacic, he took it with both hands, briefly becoming a Chelsea cult-hero. There could yet be time for Werner to save his Chelsea career! Marcos Alonso is another potential summer departure for the Blues, following many questions over his pace and defensive abilities. The Spaniard was even dropped from his left wing-back berth for countryman Azpilicueta for the first leg against Madrid, despite it being the captain’s weaker flank. Alonso was back with a point to prove, and on top of his harshly disallowed goal he was a calming figure for the away side throughout. His joint match-leading 4 key passes illustrated his offensive contribution, as well as his 9 crosses, and he was switched on defensively, helping Rudiger shore up the left flank and preventing Carvajal and Llorente overloading that side.
If there are any Chelsea fans out there feeling awful today I can more than understand why: we were 11 minutes from a well-deserved Champions League semi-final spot and who knows what could have happened from there. But hopefully with a bit of perspective we can all see a bright future for Chelsea, regardless of who takes over. In Thomas Tuchel we have a tactical genius who once again proved he is one of the best coaches in the world. We have a young and hungry squad: Chilwell, Mount, Havertz, Chalobah, James and Hudson-Odoi are all 25 and under. And on top of these crucial factors, we have an innate fighting spirit and a passionate fanbase who will stick by the side through thick and thin.
The away fans at the Santiago Bernabeu put it best as they serenaded their heroes after the full-time whistle: ‘Champions of Europe, we’ll sing that ‘till May’.
One more thing to add: imagine not being Chelsea!
By Daniel New
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