MADRID: With a dominant start and a milestone goal by Christian Pulisic, Chelsea showed their strength against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals.
Chelsea held their own away to Real but had to settle for a 1-1 draw in Tuesday’s first leg after Karim Benzema scored an acrobatic goal to cancel out an early strike from Christian Pulisic in the first Champions League match since the controversial Super League folded last week amid widespread criticism.
Chelsea made a bright start in heavy rain at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium and deservedly went ahead when Pulisic rounded Thibaut Courtois to score in the 14th minute, becoming the first US international to score in the tournament’s last four. He also surpassed DaMarcus Beasley to become the top American scorer in Champions League history with five goals.
Thirteen times European Cup winners Real looked ragged and short on ideas but pulled level in the 29th with a moment of true class from the talismanic Benzema, who controlled a knockdown before volleying into the roof of the net.
Chelsea looked the better side in the second half as well but could not break down Real again and then had to withstand some late pressure from the hosts, who visit Stamford Bridge in the second leg on May 5 looking to reach the final for a fifth time in eight years.
Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel was frustrated his side could not make the most of their early dominance.
“We started the game very well, we were aggressive, we showed courage and quality, we deserved to win the first half. Unfortunately they scored from a set-piece, there was nothing else from them for us to defend,” he said.
“It was a disappointing result at halftime the second half was a very tactical game. A bit more composure and precision in front of goal and we would have won the first half but we have to live with 1-1.”
Chelsea might regret not pulling away, with the struggling Timo Werner again missing a golden chance. It means Real will be satisfied too, after Benzema’s brilliance left the tie in the balance.
Eden Hazard was given 24 minutes off the bench against his former club but despite some twinkling touches, he was unable to add a late twist. “It’s always good to play against friends,” Hazard told BT Sport afterwards.
By the time the Belgian entered the contest, it was drifting, the early adrenaline lost, with both teams seemingly content to defer to the return leg.
Benzema’s goal was his 71st in the Champions League, making him the joint-fourth top scorer in the competition’s history with Raul, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.
When Real were suffering, and in the absence of the injured Sergio Ramos, Benzema was the one dragging his team back into this match, at times through sheer force of will.
With Werner clearly short of confidence, the Frenchman’s precision at the other end could yet prove the difference.
“The result is fair,” said Real coach Zinedine Zidane. “Our first half wasn’t the best, their pressure caused us difficulties but we adapted and in the second half we were better. We are still alive going into the second leg. We are happy with the result in general.”
Real defender Marcelo admitted his side had underperformed but was confident about their chances of making it to the final in Istanbul on May 29.
“We knew that could happen but there’s another game to come, we’re still feeling good and we know what we have to do, the return leg will be different. We didn’t dictate the pace of the game and had to adapt but we’re feeling calm.”
These two teams were both among the Super League’s ‘Dirty Dozen’, with Real president Florentino Perez, the face and voice of the breakaway project, watching on at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium.
The largely closed breakaway competition would have had Real as one of its leaders, and Chelsea also were among its founding members before dropping the idea along with the other English clubs. Real didn’t officially back out of the Super League but had downplayed the possibility of retaliation by UEFA in its Champions League matches.
Despite stirring scenes of protests outside Premier League stadiums last weekend, Real’s —admittedly remote — training ground was untouched by any sign of discontent with the club.
And there was no Real revolt against UEFA either, with the Champions League anthem ringing out as normal and the stadium announcer loyally declaring: “The UEFA Champions League brings together the best teams in Europe.”
Chelsea were electric in the first half an hour, their passing slicker and their movement quicker than Real, who were unable to keep up.
The visitors had the first clear opening when Pulisic nodded across to Werner but former Chelsea keeper Courtois thwarted the German striker with his legs.
Pulisic took no chances the next time he got into the area, controlling a long ball from Antonio Rudiger and dribbling around Courtois before calmly passing it into the net, despite the efforts of Raphael Varane and Nacho to block the shot.
“It was a great finish, great composure,” Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta said of the 22-year-old Pulisic, who has been thriving after being marred by injuries early in the season. “He’s an amazing player, he’s a young player, he’s growing and improving. I’m very pleased with his goal because he’s an important player for the team.”
Benzema carved out Real’s first chance through his own efforts, swivelling away from a Chelsea defender on the edge of the area before aiming for the top corner and hitting the post.
The Frenchman had better fortune with his next attempt. A short corner worked its way to Marcelo on the edge of the area and his cross was headed back in via Casemiro and Eder Militao. Benzema, with his back to goal and surrounded by blue shirts, tamed the ball with his forehead before throwing his body into the air and volleying in before his markers could react for his 13th goal in his last 14 matches.
The second half was more cagey as the spirit Chelsea had showed early in the match dried up as they tired, although they still managed to control the game while barely allowing Real a sniff until the end.
Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2021