Todd Boehly’s belief didn’t last long. Stopped outside the restaurant where both clubs’ directors had lunch before this Champions League quarter-final first leg, Chelsea’s owner had told fans: “Have faith, we’re going to win 3-0 tonight.” A prisoner of his words as well as his deeds, within 20 minutes he had already been proven wrong, Karim Benzema’s goal giving Real Madrid the lead; by the time the clock reached 90, it wasn’t just the game that had escaped them, it might have been the tie, Marco Asensio’s second a step towards the semi-final.
Ultimately, that was not a surprise. In fact, although Chelsea had a big chance three minutes into injury time, Antonio Rüdiger diving in to deny Mason Mount, they might still be relieved that the deficit is only two – something, however small, to grasp going into the second leg, some tiny glimmer of hope not really born out by what was seen here. Madrid had racked up 18 shots, Benzema heading the last of them over an open goal, and the current European champions were ultimately too good.
At the end of a night when Vinícius Júnior relentlessly tore into Chelsea and Madrid produced a display that Carlo Ancelotti called “complete”, control applied, his team could feel disappointed that the final score was not definitive. And yet Thibaut Courtois, the continent’s best goalkeeper, had made his statutory save, a lifeline had appeared before Chelsea right at the end and the visitors might have had the perfect start too.
Twice Frank Lampard’s team were away inside four minutes. Both times N’Golo Kanté got them running and both times it was almost astonishingly simple, but neither brought the opener. The first time, Kanté released João Félix, whose sprint began inside his own half and continued right through the middle. Momentarily clear, doubts crept in and he put the brakes on. Éder Militão caught him and although he shifted to the left, the opportunity had slipped from him and his shot did not have enough to beat Courtois.
Within two minutes Kanté was scampering through himself. A ball to the right would have released Raheem Sterling but the gap was closed before he spotted it and he was forced left to Félix instead, where the attack broke down. Two minutes after that, Enzo Fernández did set Sterling away, but he was taken out by Eduardo Camavinga.
This was a good beginning; it was also brief, traffic soon heading the other way. Benzema was blocked by Thiago Silva, Vinícius was denied by Kepa Arrizabalaga and then the Brazilian went down wanting a penalty having taken advantage of Wesley Fofana losing the ball – which was becoming a recurring theme. Madrid had taken a step forward and Chelsea could not handle it, unable to avoid the press when in possession. The back line looked cornered, escape impossible, a nervousness every time they had the ball.
Only Fernández found passes out, while Kanté’s legs occasionally carried him through, and there were some runs for Reece James. But Chelsea looked uncomfortable with the ball at their feet. Pushed back ever deeper, even throw-ins were a problem, boxed in. In fact, it was from a throw that they fell behind. Madrid won the ball, worked it to Dani Carvajal, who clipped it into the area. Vinícius, dashing behind, reached it, Arrizabalaga parried it and Benzema followed up, all so easy.
At the other end, Courtois almost immediately made a superb save when Sterling reached James’s cross and there was a moment when Félix turned Militão. But while the game occasionally opened up, Madrid were taking control. Vinícius clipped over Arrizabalaga only to see it cleared off the line. Benzema and Rodrygo combined to force another save. And just before the break came a moment that seemed to sum it up: Fofana, under pressure, turned back towards goal, lost possession and could only watch Federico Valverde dash away, grateful that the Uruguayan took on the shot rather than play a pass. It was Madrid’s 10th.
Their 11th didn’t take long, Luka Modric curling fractionally over early in the second half and Chelsea’s problems deepened when Kalidou Koulibaly, who had sprinted to prevent Rodrygo escaping, pulled up soon after. Even more so when Ben Chilwell was sent off three minutes later, having pulled down Rodrygo as he chased Valverde’s simple lofted pass. David Alaba’s resulting free-kick was saved but the plan seemed clear now: Madrid now had half an hour to kill Chelsea off; Chelsea had half an hour to resist.
Ancelotti, aware that an opportunity had opened up, sought not to let the momentum drop and introduced Asensio who did what Asensio tends to do: come on and score, guiding virtually his second touch low into the corner from the edge of the area after Vinícius’s lay-off. He had been on for only a minute. Madrid had 16 more still but couldn’t end the whole thing, relieved in the end to escape a late, late scare when Mount had the chance that could have given Chelsea something to take back other than empty words.