LONDON — At least Stamford Bridge got to see a top striker finally settle a big game.
The inconvenient truth for Chelsea and Thomas Tuchel is that it was Karim Benzema, a 34-year-old who is somehow improving with age, who turned that Champions League quarter-final perhaps irrevocably into Real Madrid’s favor in Wednesday’s 3-1 win. The France international’s superb hat-trick included two exquisite headers, while the third strike was a reward for the kind of pressure some might think was beyond a player of advanced age.
Take your pick from Benzema’s remarkable stats: 42 goals in his last 42 games, 13 in his last seven, 10 in his last four, the fourth player to score consecutive hat-tricks in the Champions League and his tally of 11 goals in a single season is the highest of any Frenchman in the competition.
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“Every day it gets better, like wine,” said Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, who arrived in London hours before kick-off after testing negative for COVID-19.
Benzema is the all-round striker Chelsea were thinking of buying from Romelu Lukaku. His first header combined laser-like precision with enough power to convert Vinicius Junior’s cross in the 21st minute.
The second was arguably better, meeting Luka Modric’s precise delivery with his weight on the wrong foot while somehow guiding a wonderful effort against Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy.
Kai Havertz responded with his own header, converting Jorginho’s excellent ball in the 40th minute, but, less than a minute into the second half, Benzema harassed Mendy into an error, under-kicking a pass to Antonio Rudiger. Benzema beat the Chelsea centre-back in the tackle and rolled the loose ball into an empty net.
Lukaku watched it all from the bench, again omitted because Chelsea have produced enough evidence over the past few weeks they are currently more powerful without the acquired man to make them that way.
He entered the fray just after the hour mark for the nameless Christian Pulisic and within five minutes the contrast to Benzema was stark to the point of embarrassing.
Cesar Azpilicueta produced a cross from the left wing to find Lukaku unmarked from seven yards out. His head lacked conviction and drifted harmlessly from the target.
“It was very important,” Tuchel said of Lukaku’s miss. “There are no more away goals so if we are only one goal down or a draw then you see the momentum is back when we score. We could even have equalize. There were plenty of spaces and chances. But the individual decisions today were far from our level of expectation.”
The home crowd hailed Lukaku’s effort expressing their anger at a glorious chance that was rejected.
They are used to it now. There was an even worse attempt later, hopelessly off target. In 26 minutes he had four touches, but one that set up Hakim Ziyech for an effort that flew just wide.
Lukaku was signed at great expense – €115m from Internazionale – for one clear reason: to add ruthlessness to a team that has habitually fended off too many chances.
In Tuchel’s first 50 games in charge, Chelsea have kept 31 clean sheets, more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues.
It was that efficiency that formed the basis of an unlikely Champions League triumph last season, but this time around, given the dual mission of retaining their European crown and chasing the Premier League title, was to align that resilience with a greater offensive threat.
Lukaku was signed as the one man solution but the problem remains. Havertz became Chelsea’s attacking leader, sometimes with a strike partner in a 3-5-2 system or alone in Tuchel’s preferred 3-4-2-1, but even in their six-game winning streak before the international break, admirable as it was given the wider uncertainty over club ownership and day-to-day functionality, they often lacked the attacking authority that could reasonably be expected of them.
Tuchel occasionally switched to a back four in pursuit of a resolution and he appeared to regret his line-up here, dropping N’Golo Kante and Andreas Christensen for Mateo Kovacic and Ziyech at half-time in a series of changes to try to rectify a game that escapes them.
Christensen was off the pace from the start, unsettled by the pace and sharpness of Vinicius’ movements. Tuchel described creating this game with their 3-5-2 line-up as ‘my mistake’ and even took the unusual step of turning down an easy opportunity to talk about the prospect of a revival in the second leg.
When asked simply if the draw was still alive, Tuchel replied: “No, not at the moment. No. We have to get back to our level. I don’t know where he 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-final against Real Madrid. So far from our level in absolutely everything the game requires, we cannot expect a result of this kind of performance.
“If we keep playing like this, we will lose at Southampton and get hammered at the Bernabeu.”
This could, of course, never be considered Lukaku’s sole fault. He’s just the figurehead of a problem Tuchel has been grappling with for some time, one that was exposed here by Real’s superb first-half performance and several individual errors, none more damaging than Mendy’s error within 45 seconds of restarting.
And in Lukaku’s defence, none of Tuchel’s substitutions worked particularly well. Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing Jorginho at the same time as Lukaku’s introduction was an odd call given the Italian’s importance to the team.
Reece James was understandably rusty on his second start since December through injury and that collective weakness on Chelsea’s right flank was a vulnerability they couldn’t hide.
In fact, full-backs are key to Tuchel’s approach and with James clearly not at his best and Azpilicueta unable to provide the same threat as Ben Chilwell, this is undoubtedly a contributing factor to any explanation for the difficulty of the matches. Blues.
As Real’s midfield trio of 30-year-old Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro began to tire, Chelsea’s persistence created several promising positions – Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, baited throughout his return to Stamford Bridge, made an excellent save from Azpilicueta – but otherwise there was a lack of quality in front of goal that Tuchel will recognize all too well. Something has to change or their Champions League aspirations will be the next victim.