Cometh The Man: Karim Benzema Sinks Chelsea's Champions League Defence

Chelsea and Real Madrid played out an instant Champions League classic at the Bernabeu
22:34, 12 Apr 2022

Real Madrid knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League in a game that will be remembered for years to come. Los Blancos had to fight off a mighty comeback attempt from the west London club, who got within 15 minutes of reaching the semi final of a competition they won last season. It was not to be, as the crushing inevitability of Karim Benzema’s extra-time winner extinguished their hopes on a thrilling night in the Spanish capital.

Chelsea always faced a huge task at the Bernabeu this evening, but it was a mountain they looked unafraid to scale in the first half. The ageless Thiago Silva did brilliantly early on to repel Vinicius Jr and the tricky Luka Modric. Meanwhile, at the other end Kai Havertz seized on a Federico Valverde error to see a shot deflected wide. Antonio Rudiger looped his header over from the resulting corner, but Chelsea’s desire was clear for all to see.

They made the momentum count through Mason Mount, after a Ruben Loftus-Cheek pass pinballed through a gap in the Madrid backline. The England midfielder reacted quickly, running through the breach and scoring an elegant side-foot to give his side the lead. With away goals a non-factor in the current Champions League format, suddenly it was game on as Thomas Tuchel’s side went within a goal of the hosts.

Real still posed danger, evidenced by the effervescent Vinicius Jr having the beating of Reece James and flashing a dangerous ball across goal. Karim Benzema, the unstoppable star of the first leg, saw a well-hit strike deflected behind by Chelsea’s defensive bedrock, Silva. As Rudiger flashed an ambitious long-ranger wide in the closing moments of the half, it spoke to how pleasingly undaunted Chelsea had been in the Spanish capital.

Chelsea started the second half at an even more brisk clip, with Antonio Rudiger nodding in from a corner to draw his side level on aggregate. It was the centre-back’s first goal in 52 European games, and he could not have picked a finer time to score it. After looking utterly dominant at Stamford Bridge, Real Madrid appeared shellshocked by the reigning European champions.

Benzema nearly made immediate amends at the other end, with James needing to make a brilliant intervention to block a shot from the Frenchman. Shortly afterwards, Ferland Mendy nearly found the 34-year-old marksman with a cross that caught the Chelsea defence cold, but this time Benzema could not meet the ball. Carlo Ancelotti’s men continued to ramp up the pressure, as a Dani Carvajal centre was blasted over by Valverde. 

Just when it looked like the swell of pressure would consume Chelsea, former Madrid man Marcos Alonso had the ball in the net. The wing-back outfoxed Carvajal and blasted his strike into the corner of the goal. But the joy was short-lived, as a VAR check ruled the goal out after it was found that the ball had hit Alonso’s hand before the shot.

The close shave spurred the irrepressible Benzema into life once more, as he hit the bar with a header almost as soon as play resumed. From this point the game was almost completely end to end. A Rudiger tackle at one end after a Kante error being followed by a professional foul from Valverde to halt Chelsea’s progress at the other. The pendulum swung as a place in the Champions League semi final hung in the balance.

This wide open game had to be taken by the scruff of the neck, and Timo Werner obliged with a brilliant individual goal. The German dropped into the left half-space and collected a ball from Mateo Kovacic. Werner beat two men and got the rub of the green from a deflection to take the ball home. It was inspired work from a player who has struggled to settle fully at Stamford Bridge, but remains capable of moments of transcendent brilliance.

Kai Havertz forced a fantastic save from Chelsea old boy Thibaut Courtois soon after the kick-off, but the goalkeeper saved brilliantly. But just when Chelsea looked like running away with it, Madrid struck. Modric played an absolute highlight-reel pass with the outside of his boot and substitute Rodrygo struck a wonderful first-time finish to take the score to 4-4 on aggregate. It was a moment of brilliance typical of what Los Blancos are able to conjure in a competition they have won more than any other club.

The creator almost turned goalscorer, testing Edouard Mendy with a long-range effort. At the other end, Mount controlled a Werner pass and dragged his shot wide. Havertz was motioning for the pass, and the German would have had a tap-in if Mount had spotted him.

Two late chances for substitute Christian Pulisic gave Chelsea faint hope, but ultimately the sides could not be separated in a wonderful 180 minutes of football across two exciting legs. Extra time would be needed to decide a semi-finalist at the Bernabeu.

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Madrid started the extra time period full of energy, with Eduardo Camavinga and Marcelo making inroads into the final third. It took just six minutes of the extra time for the goal to arrive, and when it did it came from an inevitable source. Vinicius Jr’s chipped cross saw Benzema take advantage of a Rudiger slip to nod the ball home. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The man who had ruled the first leg of this tie made a potentially decisive impact in the second.

Camavinga pulled a shot just over the bar, displaying more of the energy he had used to terrorise Chelsea since coming on. The sides headed into the mid-point of extra time at 3-2 to Chelsea on the night, and 5-4 to Real on aggregate. Tuchel brought a whiteboard onto the field to impart some last-minute instructions to his men as they prepared to go once more into the breach. Chelsea had 15 minutes to save their defence of the Champions League trophy.

Chelsea’s hopes seemed to be gone in a flash, when James crossed for Havertz. It was a free header for the forward, but he sent his attempt wide of the mark. It was a clear-cut chance, and with just three minutes remaining it looked like being the last Chelsea would get. Mendy came up for a corner and caused enough havoc for Jorginho to pull a snapshot wide of the goal. 

Those chances would be as good as it got for the Stamford Bridge club. After a truly unbelievable game of football, Chelsea’s efforts to come back from the brink were for naught. The game was an outstanding advertisement for the Champions League, and a stunning new chapter in the career of one of this generation’s defining centre forwards. There was a lot to savour in this two-legged tie, but ultimately it will be best remembered for the outstanding contributions of Karim Benzema.

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