Karim Benzema blocks Chelsea’s path to Champions League comeback against Real Madrid

The Blues need to overcome a 3-1 deficit against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu to reach the semi-finals

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Tuesday 12 April 2022 17:06
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Behind The Scenes: Real Madrid triumph at Chelsea in Champions League

Already, the Chelsea squad are talking about how they can do it, how it’s been done before. Recent Champions League seasons have, after all, had far bigger comebacks than that required by Thomas Tuchel’s side to overturn a 3-1 deficit at Real Madrid. He has been pointing to the lessons of some of them in his preparations, where the players have been revved up.

In that regard, Tuchel’s stark words on Wednesday that the tie was not alive have served their purpose. The squad have been riled.

They immediately responded with one of their most ravenous displays of the season, a 6-0 destruction of Southampton. That’s the mood they now go into the Bernabeu with. It marks quite a difference from how they finished the first leg at Stamford Bridge.

Tuchel himself inevitably changed tone. Where he had been rueful, he is now rallying.

The Chelsea manager said his players must not “accept” elimination, and that they can do that “by leaving everything on the pitch we have”.

“We know that we can take more risks and that we show our true face ... it’s a beauty of the game that everything is possible, always,” he added.

The last few years have proven that it’s especially possible when teams don’t just see a comeback as some immense task to be scaled. They need to go step by step, especially since every step deeply changes the state of the game.

This is something Tuchel has been saying to his players.

Chelsea, after all, need a 3-0 win at the Bernabeu to go through, a feat that would usually seem “impossible”, as the manager put it.

The entire feel changes if they can even get one goal to get it to 3-2 on aggregate, though. Then, it’s not about something as big as winning 3-0 at the Bernabeu. It’s just about getting the next goal after that. It becomes easy to visualise.

This is how Madrid themselves played it when coming back from 2-0 down against Paris Saint-Germain. This is what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer articulated before Manchester United’s comeback against the same side.

Kai Havertz scored Chelsea’s goal in their 3-1 first-leg defeat at Stamford Bridge

It is the only way to go about such a feat, as Jurgen Klopp found against Barcelona in 2019.

It is what Tuchel meant when he said Chelsea must have “a match where belief grows within the match by our actions”.

There is one major complication for such a plan, though. That's not Madrid, nor even the psychological challenge of doing this at this great stadium, as Tuchel referenced.

“It is one of the biggest challenges to perform as the away team at the Bernabeu,” the Chelsea manager said. “And it is even more difficult if you have to earn a certain result, if you need to win with a minimum of two goals, or even a three-goal difference.”

The last few years have proven that elite footballers should no longer be intimidated by such images. We’re in a new world. It is one reason Uefa got rid of the away goal rule.

It should also be some solace to Chelsea that Madrid scored three at Stamford Bridge, without those goals meaning what they used to.

The greatest complication, however, is the scorer of those goals.

Benzema scored all three of his side’s goals as Real Madrid won 3-1 in west London last week

Karim Benzema is in the kind of career form where he can undo any gameplan in a moment. He can easily make it so Chelsea have to get four or even five here. It’s an immense challenge to stop him in itself – especially when you’re chasing a game.

Benzema’s goals in the first leg ensured he became just the second player after Cristiano Ronaldo to score hat-tricks in consecutive Champions League knockout games. That’s symbolic, since it feels like it finally puts him on a similar plane to such greats.

He is certainly having one of their seasons, and he has so far been the dominant player of this entire Champions League campaign.

That does pose bigger questions about his career, beyond whether he can actually deliver the trophy itself.

This performance level, after all, is precisely the kind of impact that people imagined when they saw Benzema devastating defences as a young player at Lyon. It was the career he was supposed to have.

No one ever imagines these wunderkinds as sideshows, after all. They’re supposed to be the main event.

This isn’t to say it was wrong that Benzema served as Ronaldo’s support act, since we were talking about one of the greatest players of all time. It is to wonder what his career might have been if he was the focal point, as he is now.

No one could say this about his achievements, of course. Benzema has won four Champions League and is now on course for a fourth Spanish title. It’s more about his mark on such achievements, and whether he could have had more of his own victories.

Benzema’s first-leg hat-trick was his second in as many Champions League knockout games

It is undeniably crucial to a player’s legacy. Diego Maradona has far fewer medals than a great like Paolo Maldini, for example, but one reason his World Cup is considered greater than such a haul was because of how the Argentine defined such glory. It does make a difference. It's not just about the figures. It's about the feeling, too.

This is not to argue Benzema is Maradona level of course. But we are talking about a modern great, which leads to the second question from the past week.

Has Benzema always been this good, or has he gone to another level?

As contradictory as those two points sound, many people who know the 34-year-old insist it is a bit of both.

The talent has, after all, always been there. It was just constrained so Benzema could work in a more collective role. We weren’t seeing full release of his abilities, or a player able to maximise them. He was doing other jobs, if naturally doing them very well.

Benzema isn’t dependent on anyone else now. “We are dependent on Benzema”, as Carlo Ancelotti said on Monday.

That has freed his game and his talent, but some Madrid sources insist there has been a multiplying effect. It is as if being “the leader” has brought even more out of him, like he’s revelling in the responsibility.

The Bernabeu will be looking to Benzema on Tuesday. Chelsea won’t be able to look past him. They have to attack, but work out how to keep him quiet at the same time. It requires going step by step, to a proper plan.

“We need nothing else other than a fantastic script,” Tuchel said. Madrid might just have the tie’s main actor, and its box-office star.

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