Sometimes the old ones are the best. Written off as too slow to handle the pace of modern football, this was Real Madrid turning back the clock and reminding the rest of Europe that there will always be a place in the game for midfielders as smart as Luka Modric and strikers as deadly as Karim Benzema.
It did not matter that Modric is 36 or that Benzema, who has scored consecutive hat-tricks in the Champions League, is 34. By the end the notion that Chelsea would run through Madrid felt preposterous. Carlo Ancelotti, a veteran of these encounters, had outwitted Thomas Tuchel. Toni Kroos, who turned 32 in January, had helped Modric run the game. Benzema had completely obliterated Chelsea’s defence.
This was a battering. It was only 3-1, which gives Chelsea hope of reaching the last four when they visit the Bernabéu on Tuesday, but it is difficult to see the European champions turning this quarter-final around.
Madrid are not in the habit of squandering leads and, unless Chelsea find a way to repair their defensive frailties, Benzema is bound to make them suffer again.
Tuchel desperately needs a quick fix. Chelsea, labouring under the uncertainty of their ownership issues, are a mess. As Tuchel acknowledged, there was no sign of any improvement after last weekend’s 4-1 defeat to Brentford. Once again Chelsea’s shape disappeared when their opponents had the ball and the worry for Tuchel is that too many of his players look unfocused, with the error count high and the malaise summed up by Édouard Mendy gifting Benzema his third goal with a wretched turn as a sweeper-keeper at the start of the second half.
Not that Mendy was the only Chelsea player who struggled. Vinícius Junior gave Andreas Christensen such a torrid time that the centre-back had to be withdrawn at half-time. Unable to pin down Modric and Kroos, N’Golo Kanté also failed to make it out for the second half. As for Romelu Lukaku, he was given 26 minutes to swing the game in Chelsea’s favour and did nothing apart from miss the kind of chance £97.5m strikers have to take.
Madrid, who had never beaten Chelsea before, would not be as generous. The Spaniards are a different proposition to the one that fared so badly when these sides met in the semi-finals last season. Ancelotti has them 12 points clear at the top of La Liga and although there was an emphasis on speed from Tuchel, who picked a mobile front three of Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount and Kai Havertz, the sense that Madrid would be overpowered soon proved misplaced.
Admittedly the signs for Chelsea were encouraging when Mount rattled into Kroos early on. At that stage Madrid appeared to be in trouble. Chelsea were pressing ferociously and they had chances, Havertz firing over and Thibaut Courtois repelling a free-kick from Reece James.
Yet it was too frenzied from Chelsea. They lacked positional discipline and Madrid soon found space to create. There was a warning when Benzema and Fede Valverde released Vinícius, who struck the bar, and Tuchel looked worried even before the opening goal arrived.
The game was being played at Madrid’s stately pace, Modric, Kroos and Casemiro dominating midfield, and Chelsea were not quick enough to smell danger. They did not seem to realise that the visitors wanted to exploit the gaps behind James. Chelsea’s right wing-back was not protecting Christensen and that weakness proved pivotal after 21 minutes, Vinícius playing a double one-two with Benzema and crossing for the France striker to direct a glorious header beyond Mendy.
It was a superb goal, made possible by Benzema dropping deep to link play, and another soon arrived. Valverde, preferred to Marco Asensio on the right, found Modric and the Croat was allowed to cross for Benzema, who peeled away from Thiago Silva and Christensen before heading past Mendy again.
Chelsea were all over the place. Havertz pulled one back before half-time, escaping Éder Militão and David Alaba before powering Jorginho’s cross past Courtois, but it was not convincing. Tuchel was not fooled, particularly after seeing Benzema miss a sitter on the stroke of half-time. Something had to change and Tuchel used the interval to adjust, replacing Christensen and Kanté with Mateo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech.
Unfortunately nobody will ever be able to tell if those substitutions were the right ones. The second half was a minute old when Mendy came out of his area and sold Antonio Rüdiger short, allowing Benzema to steal possession and roll the ball into the empty net from 25 yards.
Chelsea were deflated. They tried to mount a fightback but the mood worsened when Lukaku headed wide from six yards. In the end there was nothing but regret. Madrid had all the poise. Chelsea simply have a mountain to climb.