Chelsea are a clean sheet away from the Champions League Final. Given they have achieved that 16 times in 22 games under Thomas Tuchel then they have to be favourites even though it is Real Madrid, with their rich pedigree and long association with winning this glittering prize, who travel to Stamford Bridge for next week’s second leg.
But in near monsoon conditions in Madrid, with Real coach Zinedine Zidane even using a towel to wipe his sodden coat, there was no storm from the Spaniards. Instead this was a wonderfully strategized performance from Thomas Tuchel as Chelsea hit Real hard and then, when the momentum looked like it was about to swing, made the substitutions to re-assert themselves. Defensively they were, yet again, impressive. Their organisation was excellent. They fought for every inch. The belief that Tuchel has given them has been transformative.
The precious away goal was scored early and the only regret for Chelsea, as they attempt to reach their third final and their first since they won the trophy in 2012, is that they did not add to it when they were on top. They had the chances and hopefully there will be no regrets. The quality of Real’s goal, though, will serve to warn that this is far from over and we should be set for an epic night in west London. If only it was in front of a full stadium.
Chelsea took the contest to Real. They started quicker, they were more aggressive and they got their reward. Real tried to match up with a back-three but it was unpicked time and again by the speed of Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner and Mason Mount and with N’Golo Kante breaking from midfield.
It was thrilling – and Pulisic scored. The forward ran in behind Nacho and onto a fine flighted ball forward by Antonio Rudiger before breaking into the penalty area. He kept his head, Nacho made a mistake by leaving him and Pulisic rounded goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois as Raphael Varane scampered back to join Nacho on the goal-line. Pulisic stayed calm and drove a shot that flew high into the net off Varane’s shoulder.
It meant Pulisic became the first American to score in a Champions League semi-final and was the first goal Courtois had conceded in six hours and 44 minutes. In truth it should have been the second.
Already Mount had run from his own half, holding off Luka Modric before crossing, with the ball spinning up off the Real midfielder. It dropped to Christian Pulisic who smartly directed a header to Timo Werner. Unmarked and just six yards out Werner had to score but his side-footed shot lacked power and direction and Courtois saved with his feet just as he had thwarted Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah in the quarter-finals.
Sergio Ramos, the Real captain who is out as he recovers from Covid, was in the tunnel geeing up his team-mates before kick-off and although he was missing Varane and Dani Carvajal were back in a stronger line-up than the one that nevertheless proved too strong for Liverpool. But Chelsea were running riot.
The expectation was that defences would be on top. Chelsea had already blown that away and then Real did also. It was Karim Benzema, so outstanding this season, who took over. Firstly he turned 22 yards out and struck a fierce reverse shot that clipped the outside of the post as Edouard Mendy clutched at air.
The warning was not heeded. Soon after Real cleverly worked the ball from a corner with Marcelo crossing deep, Casemiro heading the ball back across goal, Eder Militao flicking it on for Benzema to cushion a header of his own which he then acrobatically volleyed past Mendy. What a strike.
And with it Benzema not only drew Real level but had his 71st Champions League goal taking him level with Raul on the all-time list. Only Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski have scored more. Meanwhile Chelsea will look at how they lost three headers in their own area.
As the rain fell harder and harder, as the pitch become logged, as the surface water began to gleam in the floodlights, Chelsea attempted to hit back. Ben Chilwell shot across goal and then Werner did exactly the opposite, firing into the side-netting. Mount was waiting for the pass.
It remained open. Gloriously it was defying predictions as both teams, maybe because of the early goal, maybe also because of the tricky conditions continued to go for it. For Chelsea this was their first Champions League semi-final in seven years but they did not play like that.
Chelsea’s ferocity earned them another chance as they won the ball back just outside the Real area with Kante flicking it to Werner. With another sight of goal his shot yet again lacked conviction and Militao easily blocked.
The concern was that Real were finally getting a grip with Nacho, Varane and Militao stepping forward to win the ball and not backing off as they had done in the first-half. That control extended into the midfield and Thiago Silva did well to intercept before Vinicius could run onto a through ball.
The tempo dropped. Both sides were weighing this up, gathering for the finale, working out whether they could seize an advantage and Real were fortunate to escape when Carvajal clearly pushed over Chilwell as he attempted to reach a cross in the Real area. No penalty.
Tuchel decided a fresh impetus was needed and made a triple substitution while Real turned to a certain Eden Hazard as they sought the crucial second goal that would swing the mood of this tie. The changes made by Tuchel yet again showed the strength of his squad. On came Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Reece James and suddenly Real were pegged back.
Twice Ziyech sent in dangerous crosses before a panicky Varane up-ended Havertz. It came as Zidane changed his defensive shape with the desperation to score growing. But Chelsea continued to press with Rudiger, Silva and Andreas Christensen forming a blue wall. Rudiger slid in to deny substitute Alvaro Odriozola after Christensen had headed a Hazard cross clear as Benzema waited.
Finally Mendy was involved as he scrambled to cover a deflected shot from Toni Kross. It was Varane who met the corner and his header, also, ricocheted narrowly wide. This time Mendy would have been beaten.
Chelsea’s all-action display was summed up by Rudiger who went on a barrelling run down the wing and then seconds later was back in position to body-check Modric. Compared to the first-half the second period petered out and Chelsea will have liked it that way.