MADRID — There’s no favorite way to hand in your Champions League crown, but nothing can come much closer than this.
When asked on the eve of Tuesday’s game how league champions bow when it’s their time, Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel replied: “By not accepting it before it ends. By leaving everything on the pitch that we and by showing we can work harder, play better, know we can take more risks and show our true face and live up to our full potential.”
They did just that. The Blues’ title defense ended in the quarterfinals, forcing extra time here at the Bernabeu stadium and winning 3-2 in the evening, but losing 5-4 in total.
Indeed, Chelsea lived up to their full potential and showed exactly what they are: Herculean spirit, heroically defiant in the face of adversity, cleverly deployed by one of the game’s elite coaches, but ultimately flawed in the final third.
The difference over the 210 minutes was the end. Karim Benzema’s header in the 96th minute was the last goal of a captivating, breathless night here at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, his fourth of Real’s five on the stand. The 34-year-old hit the bar with a previous try and just four shots all night, but he was there to deliver the knockout blow. His individual xG was 0.58, lower than Kai Havertz (0.77) and Christian Pulisic, who only played the last 37 minutes but missed two glorious opportunities to declare his xG of 0.61.
Benzema’s clinical touch and a truly brilliant assist from Luka Modric were the moments of efficiency Chelsea missed.
“We are very disappointed and at the same time very proud,” said Tuchel. “After our mistakes, we were beaten by sheer individual quality and attacking conversion.
“They didn’t create much at Stamford Bridge, but they took every half chance and converted. This was enough. You have to reduce the number of mistakes and we couldn’t keep it to an absolute minimum over the two legs.”
“I think we deserved to continue. We were unlucky, but we have no regrets. These are the kind of defeats you can take with pride and accept as a sportsman.”
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Chelsea amassed 28 shots in the night and at one point earned a 3-0 lead as they held Real in their own half with a mix of intelligent pressing, midfield control and tireless mental strength. There was an element of luck in Mason Mount’s opener as Timo Werner didn’t seem to get the makeshift pass quite his way, but the England international showed excellent composure to pass Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
The 1,000 or so Chelsea fans tucked away in the middle of the renovation of this iconic stadium sensed the comeback was imminent.
Antonio Rudiger headed Mount’s 51st-minute corner into the net to tie Chelsea on aggregate, and when Marcos Alonso hit a shot past Courtois just after the hour, they were ahead in the lead. Still, VAR ruled out Alonso’s attempt at an unfortunate but detectable handball and Chelsea’s progress was briefly checked. Benzema hit the bar but Chelsea came forward anyway.
Mateo Kovacic slid through for Werner in the 75th minute, who cut in with his right foot and sent a shot that Courtois could only clear into the far corner. Real had been curiously passive up to that point, seemingly unable to change gears after long trying to contain Chelsea, but Modric conjured a pass out of nowhere to revive their hopes.
Lifting the ball over Thiago Silva with the outside of his right foot, Modric’s pass fell perfectly for Rodrygo to send a smart finish past Edouard Mendy and set up extra time, although not before two Pulisic misses from close, the second looked worse with each rep as he slashed the ball over the bar.
Tuchel had warned ahead of the game that Real had a physical advantage with LaLiga making five substitutions compared to the three in the Premier League, and that may have contributed to one or two tired passes creeping into their game. Chelsea lost the ball cheaply and suddenly Vinicius Junior found himself in the space to the left, looking back before finding a cross for Benzema to convert into a goal that bore more than a passing resemblance to the opener in the first leg.
Hakim Ziyech got a shot knocked off by Courtois at the near post before Havertz headed wide in the penalty area. Jorginho dragged another try off goal in a frenetic final, which sent Tuchel’s frustration to all sides, including Polish referee Szymon Marciniak for “laughing and smiling” with Real boss Carlo Ancelotti on a full-time basis.
Tuchel also suggested officials lack “the courage” to make big decisions, something he couldn’t do for his players after a performance made all the more resilient given the wider context of uncertainty over Chelsea’s ownership following Roman Abramovich’s sanction by the United States. British government and then effectively forced sale.
The four bidders still in the race got a perfect distillation of what they’re buying: a highly competitive unit that knows how to compete for trophies. But they could also see that it is an investment that must be invested if Chelsea are to continue to fight like this.