LONDON – At least Stamford Bridge could see a top striker finally seal a big game.
The embarrassing fact for Chelsea and Thomas Tuchel is that 34-year-old Karim Benzema is improving somewhat with age, making this Champions League quarter-final match possibly in Real Madrid’s irrevocable favour, in a 3-1 win on Wednesday. The France international’s superb hat-trick consisted of two great headers, while the third was a reward for the kind of pressure that some might think goes beyond years of progress.
Choose Benzema’s impressive stats: 42 goals in the last 42 games, 13 goals in the last seven, 10 goals in the last four, the fourth player ever to score consecutive hat-tricks in the Champions League, with a tally of 11 goals in… One season is the highest by any Frenchman in competition.
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“Every day is better, like wine,” said Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, who arrived in London a few hours before kick-off after testing negative for COVID-19.
Benzema is the perfect striker Chelsea thought they would buy in Romelu Lukaku. His first sight combined laser-like precision with enough power to turn Vinicius Jr’s cross in the 21st minute.
The second goal was arguably better, meeting Luka Modric’s precise delivery with his weight on the wrong foot, but he somehow channeled a superb effort through Chelsea goalkeeper Eduard Mendy.
Kai Havertz responded with a header on his own, and converted Jorginho’s excellent ball in the 40th minute, but less than a minute after the start of the second half, Benzema made Mendy in a foul, and the farthest pass to Antonio Rudiger. Benzema overcame the Chelsea defense center in the intervention and hit the ball into the empty net.
Lukaku watched all this from the bench, again taken down as a result of Chelsea providing enough evidence over recent weeks that they are currently much more effective without getting the man to do so.
He entered the fray an hour after unidentified Christian Pulisic and within five minutes the contrast with Benzema was embarrassingly stark.
Cesar Azpilicueta crossed from the left wing to find an unmarked Lukaku seven yards away. Header lacked condemnation and drifted wide.
“It was very important,” Tuchel said of Miss Lukaku. “There are no away goals anymore, so if we’re only a goal deficit or a draw, you’ll see the momentum come back when we score. We could even have scored. There were plenty of spaces and chances. But the individual decisions today were far from our standards.”
The home audience greeted Lukaku’s efforts by venting their anger at a glorious opportunity that was turned down.
They are used to it now. There was a worse attempt later, and I was hopelessly off target. In 26 minutes, he managed four touches, albeit one of those with Hakim Ziyech for an effort that flew away.
Lukaku’s contract was signed at a big expense – 115 million euros from Internazionale – for an obvious reason: to add ruthlessness to a team that usually rejects many opportunities.
In Tuchel’s first 50 matches, Chelsea kept 31 clean sheets, a number more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues.
It was that competence that formed the basis for an unlikely Champions League victory last season, but this time around, given the dual task of retaining the European title and striving for the Premier League title, it was to align that resilience with an even greater offensive threat.
Lukaku was signed on as a single solution but the problem still persisted. Havertz has grown into a Chelsea attack leadership role, sometimes with a partner in strike in the 3-5-2 system or alone in Tuchel’s favorite 3-4-2-1, but even in their six-game win before the international break, they are impressive as they were given In the broader uncertainty about club ownership and day-to-day functions, they often did not possess the offensive power that could reasonably be expected of them.
Tuchel occasionally moved into a four-legged defense position in pursuit of a solution and seemed to regret the lineup here, with N’Golo Kante and Andreas Christensen replacing Mateo Kovacic and Ziyech with halftime changes in a series of changes to try to patch. A game away from them.
Christensen was far from the pace from the start, unsettled by Vinicius’ speed of movement and sharpness. Tuchel described creating that match with his 3-5-2 formation “my mistake” and even took the unusual step of turning down an easy opportunity to talk about the possibility of reviving the second leg.
Asked if the tie was still alive, Tuchel said: “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 away from our level in everything the game requires, we can’t expect an outcome from this kind of performance.
“If we keep playing like this we will lose at Southampton and then we will lose at the Bernabeu.”
This, of course, cannot be considered Lukaku’s fault alone. It’s just a graphic header of an issue Tuchel has wrestled with for some time, one revealed here by Real’s superb first-half display and several individual fouls, and nothing is more damaging than Mendy’s foul within 45 seconds of the reboot.
And in Lukaku’s defence, none of Tuchel’s substitutions did well. Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Jorginho at the same time that Lukaku’s introduction was an odd call given the Italian’s importance to the team.
Reece James was understandably rusty in only his second start since December due to injury and the collective weakness of Chelsea’s right wing was a weakness they were unable to hide.
Indeed, full-backs are vital to Tuchel’s style, James is clearly not at his best and Azpilicueta is unable to make the same threat as Ben Chilwell, which is undoubtedly a contributing factor to any explanation as to why the Blues are suffering.
As the 30-year-old Real Madrid midfielder’s trio, Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro started to wear out, Chelsea’s tenacity created several promising positions – Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who stabbed throughout his return to Stamford Bridge, pulled off an excellent save from Azpilicueta. – But other than that there was a lack of quality in front of goal which Tuchel will recognize. Something has to change or their Champions League aspirations will be the next victim.