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Soccer

Chelsea Let Real Madrid Off The Hook

Karim Benzema of Real Madrid reacts after a missed shot during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final First Leg match between Real Madrid and Chelsea FC at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano on April 27, 2021 in Madrid, Spain.
Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

To win a soccer game, it is critically important that you score when you’re in charge. The design of the sport is such that a team can be doing everything well—protecting its own goal, controlling the ball, getting into dangerous areas, creating good opportunities for shots—and still fail to put the ball in the back of the net. Scoring is just that hard, as is maintaining the upper hand for any extended period of time, which is why you absolutely must find goals during those periods of ascendency if you hope to win. It is an obvious lesson, and it is one that Chelsea learned all over again in Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid.

For the first 25 minutes or so of the match, Chelsea was totally dominant. The Blues looked like they could slice through Real’s defense at will. Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount especially looked to be on a rampage, regularly sneaking into the open space behind Real’s midfield, collecting a pass, and bearing straight down on the home team’s three-man back line. With Casemiro pushing forward to harry Chelsea’s possession organizer, Jorginho, and with Madrid’s center backs confused about whether to jump up into that vacated space when a Chelsea attacker appeared there or to hang back and defend the space behind, Madrid constantly left its throat exposed, failing to adequately protect the areas in front of and behind the defense.

Running into those spaces with knives between their teeth, Chelsea’s attackers were constant threats to draw blood. The best chance of the game came early on from a transition attack of that sort, when Mount danced his way through Real’s press, carried the ball into the final third, and hit a deflected cross/shot that found Pulisic free in the box, who then headed the ball onto a wide open Timo Werner, whose point-blank shot was saved thanks to some ingenious and more-than-a-little lucky positioning by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. It was the kind of move you have to score from, during a stretch of superiority in which you have to score, and Chelsea came up just short.

Chelsea found redemption for that blown chance just a few minutes later, when Real failed to impede another simple run, this time the chance falling to Pulisic, who took his time to ensure he would not miss. His strike gave Chelsea a 1–0 lead in just the 14th minute, and presented an opportunity to kill off the match and maybe even the tie, should the team press its advantage and grab another goal or two while the getting was good.

Instead, Chelsea faltered. The team kept up its control of the match for another 10 minutes or so after the opening goal, but the attackers’ decision-making, run selection, and final passes prevented Chelsea from creating another chance of the quality of the two above. (A lot of the blame here lies with Werner, who was awful.) When, in the 23rd minute, Karim Benzema capped a fantastic move that saw him drift across the entire pitch to orchestrate an attack with a thundering left-footed shot that smacked against the outside of the goal post, it started to feel as if Chelsea’s command over the match was starting to slip without the team having truly capitalized on it. Sure enough, just a few minutes later Benzema pulled off another piece of individual brilliance and smashed in the equalizer. From that point on, the match was played at a much more even and uninspiring pace, with neither team quite establishing control.

On paper, coming away with a 1–1 draw in the first leg of a Champions League tie is a great result for the visiting team. But in this case, the result looks like a massive missed opportunity for Chelsea. The trajectory of the match spoke to something true about these two teams: Chelsea has a higher floor than Madrid but also a lower ceiling, and without a truly great player who can by himself change the tide of a match and turn spells of dominance into goals—without a player like Benzema, for example—Chelsea will always be at risk of drawing or losing when it really should’ve won.

Chelsea is still in a good position in the tie, and with a much deeper roster than Real, it should be able to rest many of Tuesday’s starters this weekend to keep them fresher for the second leg next week. But it also seems like Chelsea has already had its best stretch. Against even this shaky but still proud Real Madrid bunch, that has the makings of a disaster.