Chelsea have made a habit of snatching successes while surrounded by adversity and instability – but their current plight surely means retaining the Champions League crown will be beyond even their powers of escapology.
Stricken by sanctions imposed on owner Roman Abramovich for alleged links to Russian president Vladimir Putin and with three of four shortlisted potential successors watching on at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea suffered another blow in what is developing into a chaotic season.
Chelsea have navigated a route out of hazardous situations in this competition in the past but even their ability to defy the odds will surely not run to overturning a 3-1 quarter-final deficit in the second leg against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Thomas Tuchel’s side came into the tie off the back of Brentford’s stunning 4-1 win at Stamford Bridge on Saturday and the after-shocks remained in a shaky defensive display.
And with a world-class striker in Karim Benzema seemingly on a personal mission to bring the trophy to Real Madrid for the 14th time, this was another bad 90 minutes for Chelsea and Tuchel.
It was not a great advert for those wishing to purchase Chelsea with their billions but past history tells us never to write them off.
Real could have been out of sight by half-time as they swamped forward and exposed Chelsea’s vulnerabilities with painful regularity. It was no surprise Tuchel was so critical of his side’s performance in that first 45 minutes.
He said: “We have to find our level back, I don’t know where it is since the international break, but the first half is a repetition of the second half against Brentford, in a quarter-final against Real Madrid.
“We were so far off our level in everything the game demands. It’s on all of us, I’m included in this. Individually we lost shape and sharpness in the international break.
“I don’t have really an explanation because we have fallen from being very, very competitive.”
Benzema masterclass a contrast to lacking Lukaku
Chelsea had their chances, with former keeper Thibaut Courtois saving brilliantly from Cesar Azpilicueta in the second half, but Real carried that air of authority afforded by years of travelling around this particular block, a stature personified by Benzema.
And how the 34-year-old France striker’s ability to improve with age provided a sharp contrast to the struggles of Romelu Lukaku, who looks more like a £97m misfit with every passing week.
Benzema gave the complete performance with two masterly first-half headers and a poacher’s instinct to punish Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy’s error early in the second half. He actually missed an easy chance to complete his hat-trick earlier but this was a minor flaw in a masterclass.
Lukaku, in contrast, appears to be Chelsea’s weapon of last resort, not truly trusted by his manager and with confidence fragile.
He was only introduced when Chelsea were 3-1 down to Brentford on Saturday and it was the same drill here.
And, emphasising the gulf in class compared to Benzema, Chelsea’s fans groaned in unison as he guided a weak header wide of the target with time and space when given a chance to at least inflict a modicum of pressure on Real.
Lukaku still has time to make an impact on Chelsea’s season with an FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace to come, a Premier League top-four place to fight for and the second leg against Real – but he is running out of time.
The theory, when he returned to Chelsea from Inter Milan in the summer, was that Lukaku would be the missing piece in a side that had won the Champions League but was still prone to over-generosity in front of goal.
Amid interviews revealing public discontent at his role, average performances and regular exclusion from Chelsea’s starting line-ups, it simply has not worked.
A Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid is surely exactly the sort of game Lukaku was brought to Stamford Bridge to influence. He did not start here. He did not even start against Brentford. It is a damning reflection on his form.
It would be harsh to blame Lukaku for this loss but the enduring brilliance of Benzema did shine a light on the Belgian’s struggles.
Can Chelsea turn it around?
Asked if the tie was still alive Tuchel replied “no” but Chelsea will still travel to Madrid with some hope. However, they are up against canny operators in Real and their coach Carlo Ancelotti, a three-time winner of this tournament.
He even felt able to give former Arsenal loan player Dani Ceballos and the rarely-spotted – for Real Madrid anyway – Gareth Bale a trot in the closing moments as they ran down the clock.
This was Chelsea’s first loss to Real in six meetings and memories are still fresh of how they overcame Zinedine Zidane’s side, who had previously dispatched Liverpool, in last season’s semi-final.
Times and circumstances have changed and this time Chelsea will be at the Bernabeu rather than behind closed doors at what was effectively Real’s training ground.
Chelsea have turned many hazardous situations around in the Champions League. If they can pull off a comeback in the second leg to reach the last four then Tuchel can rank it along their finest achievements.
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