Chelsea’s Champions League hopes hang by a thread after the holders were soundly beaten by Real Madrid in the first leg of their quarter-final clash, courtesy of a Karim Benzema masterclass at a sodden Stamford Bridge.
The hosts started brightly and controlled possession, but they were hit on the break by two devastating attacks inside half an hour and a sucker punch immediately after half-time as Benzema bagged his hat-trick.
Kai Havertz went close five minutes in, taking on his man before smashing the ball over the crossbar. At the other end, Vinicius Jr carried the ball forward in the left channel before seeing his bending effort clip the top of the woodwork.
Reece James called former Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois into action with a well-struck free kick after a quarter of an hour, with the Belgian able to push it away, but the subsequent period was all about one man: Benzema.
The Frenchman produced a three-minute heading masterclass to have Real two goals to the good midway through the half – first rising to expertly finish Vinicius’ clipped cross and repeating the trick by looping the ball back across goal and into the side-netting when Luka Modric’s sublime deep cross dropped square onto his forehead.
The half continued in a back-and-forth manner, but Chelsea steadied themselves and gained some momentum. After Thiago Silva had stooped to flick a corner just over, Jorginho’s excellent lifted through ball picked out Havertz, whose downward header had enough power to beat Courtois’ arm.
Before the break there was even time for Benzema to spurn a golden opportunity for the hat-trick as he steered the ball wide inside the box after more good work from Vinicius.
He wouldn’t have to wait long, though.
Having hauled themselves back into the tie, a horrendous error from goalkeeper Edouard Mendy right at the start of the second period gifted Real – and Benzema – a third. The stopper rushed out to control the ball but under-hit a simple pass straight to Benzema, who gleefully rolled it into the empty net.
Cesar Azpilicueta must surely have thought he had reduced the deficit again five minutes later, but Courtois produced a wonderful save to tip his drive around the post when it was bound for the top corner.
The best opportunities Chelsea could muster in the remainder of the match came when there was still 20 minutes left to play, as their visitors managed the situation expertly. Substitute Romelu Lukaku missed a huge chance when a deflected cross found him unmarked in the box, but he somehow guided it wide with his head.
A minute later Mason Mount ran onto a loose ball and whipped a strike towards goal, but it sailed onto the top of the net.
The result means Chelsea will need to beat Real by three goals at the Bernabeu to secure victory in the tie, unless they can force penalties with a two-goal victory.
Here’s how the players rated…
Edouard Mendy (GK) – 2/10 – Could perhaps have done better positionally for both first-half goals. Horrible error to gift Benzema his hat-trick.
Andreas Christensen (CB) – 3/10 – Slipped in the build-up to the opener. Caused serious issues by Vinicius. Subbed at the break.
Thiago Silva (CB) – 5/10 – Benzema managed to elude him before nodding in his second. Good enough otherwise.
Antonio Rudiger (CB) – 5/10 – Booked early for a poor challenge. Could have helped out his keeper in the lead-up to the third.
Reece James (RWB) – 5/10 – Wonderful footwork at times and heavily involved going forward. Probably needed to offer Christensen more help defensively though. Moved to right-back.
N’Golo Kante (CM) – 5/10 – Struggled against Los Blancos’ experienced trio. Got on the ball but wasn’t his usual self. Subbed at half-time.
Jorginho (CM) – 6/10 – Sometimes overrun by Real’s midfield three, but found the space to provide a lovely assist for Havertz. Subbed in the second half.
Cesar Azpilicueta (LWB) – 6/10 – Solid defensively. Must have thought he’d scored but denied by Courtois’ wonder save.
Mason Mount (RF) – 6/10 – Bags of energy, his press disrupted Real’s play. Tireless throughout and came so close to scoring.
Kai Havertz (CF) – 7/10 – Sharp from the off and pulled one back with a towering header. Unable to have the same influence after half-time.
Christian Pulisic (LF) – 5/10 – Some good ball carries but struggled to have any impact against Dani Carvajal. Subbed.
Mateo Kovacic (CM) – 4/10 – His introduction didn’t have the desired effect. Some loose passing.
Hakim Ziyech (RW) – 5/10 – Energetic and skilful but couldn’t create anything.
Romelu Lukaku (ST) – 3/10 – Missed a gilt-edged free header when he really should have scored.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (CM) – 5/10 – His ball carries were a little ragged.
Thibaut Courtois (GK) – 7/10 – Drew the wrath of the home fans throughout. Strong save to push James’ free kick away. Couldn’t keep out Havertz’s header. Stupendous save to deny Azpilicueta.
Dani Carvajal (RB) – 7/10 – Shackled Pulisic and carried the ball with confidence. Relieved pressure late on.
Eder Militao (CB) – 6/10 – Got himself in a tangle and lucky to only see yellow when he brought down Havertz. Struggled with an injury and forced off after a solid display.
David Alaba (CB) – 6/10 – Solid in the tackle and won his duels, although Havertz caused both centre-backs problems.
Ferland Mendy (LB) – 6/10 – James caused him issues, with lots of Chelsea’s best play coming down his flank. Improved after the break.
Casemiro (DM) – 7/10 – Always the spare man against Chelsea’s midfield two. Warrior-like in the tackle and close to double figures for recoveries.
Toni Kroos (CM) – 6/10 – Smooth passing but won five out of five ground duels too. Quieter than his colleagues and subbed.
Luka Modric (CM) – 7/10 – Sumptuous deep cross to assist Benzema’s second, but had too much time. Didn’t have the same control after the break but played his part.
Federico Valverde (RW) – 6/10 – Workmanlike but did the job asked of him. Subbed late.
Karim Benzema (ST) – 9/10 – Quiet before expertly heading home and repeating the trick two minutes later. Pounced on Mendy’s error for the hat-trick. Inevitable. Subbed late.
Vinicius Jr (LW) – 7/10 – Dangerous from the off and delivered an inch-perfect assist for Benzema. Caused Christensen so many issues that Tuchel hooked him.
Nacho Fernandez (CB) – 5/10 – On for the injured Militao.
Eduardo Camavinga (CM) – 5/10 – Fairly quiet after his introduction.
Gareth Bale (ST) – N/A
Dani Ceballos (RW) – N/A