LONDON – Stamford Bridge at least got to see a top striker make up for a big game at last.
The uncomfortable truth for Chelsea and Thomas Tuchel is that it was 34-year-old Karim Benzema, who improved in some way with age, who turned this quarter-final of the Champions League perhaps irrevocably in favor of Real Madrid in a 3-1 victory on Wednesday. The French international’s stunning three-pointer consisted of two magnificent headers, while the third shot was a prize for the pressure that some may think is beyond a player in his senior years.
Choose Benzema’s incredible statistics: 42 goals in his last 42 games, 13 in his last seven, 10 in his last four, the fourth player to score three in the Champions League and 11 goals in one season is the highest the French have in the competition.
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“Every day he is better, like wine,” said Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, who arrived in London a few hours before the start of the game after testing negative for COVID-19.
Benzema is the absolute striker that Chelsea thought they were buying from Romelu Lukaku. His first header combined laser-like precision and enough power to change Vinicius Junior’s cross in the 21st minute.
The latter was probably better, met a certain pass from Luka Modric with his weight on the wrong foot but somehow led a great attempt back over Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy.
Kai Havertz responded with his own header and changed Jorginho’s great ball in the 40th minute, but within minutes of the second half, Benzema put Mendy in the wrong position and hit a pass to Antonio Rudiger. Benzema beat Chelsea’s center-back in the tackle and rolled the loose ball into the empty net.
Lukaku watched it all from the bench, released once again because Chelsea have provided enough evidence in recent weeks that they are more powerful at the moment without the man being hired to do so.
He came into the fight just after an hour for the anonymous Christian Pulisic and within five minutes the contrast with Benzema was obvious to the point that he was embarrassed.
Cesar Azpilicueta appeared on cue near the post, and steered it past the goalie. It lacked conviction in his head and drove harmlessly out of the goal.
“It was very important,” Tuchel said of the missing Lukaku. “There are no more goals on the field so if we only have one goal under or a draw, you will see that the power is back when we score. We could have even equalized. There were many chances and opportunities. But the individual decisions today were far from our standards. “
Locals welcomed Lukaku’s attempt to vent his anger after a glorious opportunity was turned down.
They are now used to it. It was an even worse attempt later, hopelessly off target. In the 26th minute, he made four touchdowns, albeit one of them to put Hakim Ziyech ahead of an attempt that flew just wide.
Lukaku was bought at a high cost – 115 million euros from Internazionale – for a clear reason: to add ruthlessness to a team that usually rejected too many opportunities.
In Tuchel’s first 50 games at the helm, Chelsea kept 31 goals clear, more than any other team in the top five in Europe.
It was this efficiency that was the basis for an unlikely victory in the Champions League last season, but this time, in view of the dual role of keeping its European crown and pursuing the Premier League title, it was to align that resilience with a greater threat of attack.
Lukaku was signed as a one-man solution but the problem remains. Havertz have grown into the role of leading Chelsea’s attack, sometimes with strikers in a 3-5-2 formation or one in the selected 3-4-2-1 Tuchel, but even in their six-game winning streak before the international break, admirable as it was in the face of wider uncertainty about the club’s ownership and day – to – day operations, they often did not have the attacking power that could be expected of them.
Tuchel has occasionally gone into fourth place in search of a solution and he seemed to regret his line-up here, pulling N’Golo Kante and Andreas Christensen back for Mateo Kovacic and Ziyech at half-time in a series of changes to try to correct a game slipping away. them.
Christensen was not fast from the start, agitated over Vinicius’ speed and sharpness of movement. Tuchel described the creation of this game with their 3-5-2 formation as “my mistake” and even took the unusual step of refusing an easy opportunity to talk about the possibility of a revival in another game.
Asked simply if the draw was still alive, Tuchel said: “No, not at the moment. No. We have to find our point again. I do not know where it is since the international break. The first half is a repeat of the second half against Brentford [a 4-1 home defeat] in the quarter-finals against Real Madrid. So far from our level in exactly everything the game requires, we can not expect a result from such a performance.
“If we continue to play like this, we will lose at Southampton and then we will be hammered at the Bernabeu.”
Of course, this could never be considered Lukaku’s fault. He’s just the headache of a problem that Tuchel has been struggling with for some time, which was revealed here with Real’s great first half screen and a few individual errors, none more damaging than Mendy’s mistake within 45 seconds of restarting.
And in Lukaku’s defense, none of Tuchel’s substitutions worked particularly well. Ruben Loftus-Cheek who came on for Jorginho at the same time as Lukaku came on was a strange call considering the importance of Italy for the team.
Reece James was understandably rusty in just his second start since December due to injury and this joint weakness on the right wing at Chelsea was a vulnerability that they could not hide.
In fact, the defenders are important for Tuchel’s approach and since James is clearly not at his best and Azpilicueta is unable to pose the same threat as Ben Chilwell, this is undoubtedly part of any explanation for why the Blues struggled.
When the 30-something midfield trio of Real, Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro all got tired, Chelsea’s perseverance created some promising positions – Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who was sharp all the time when he returned to Stamford Bridge, defended one great defense from Azpilicueta. – another. there was a lack of quality in front of goal that Tuchel will know all too well. Something has to change otherwise their hopes for the Champions League will be the next death.