Chelsea took a step towards the third Champions League final in their history but it could have been more, half way to Istanbul by now. A 1-1 draw is a result a manager would normally be happy to take home, an away goal providing a significant advantage, but when Chelsea touched down in London Thomas Tuchel would be entitled to still be wondering how it is that his team still has so much work to be done.
It was not just that Chelsea lost the early lead they had taken at Valdebebas as the skies opened and thunder rolled round; that for the equaliser they were caught on a corner, Karim Benzema providing a stunning finish, or even that they ended the night under pressure – they could have foreseen that – it was that those brief, final minutes of nerves were the first they had suffered and that for the first half they had taken Real Madrid apart without taking control of the tie.
If there was frustration there, there may be familiarity too, the explanation simple: this is Real Madrid and this is Europe, where it takes something special to defeat them, the ultimate survivors. For a while Chelsea found that; now they must do so again in eight days’ time, where they must make Christian Pulisic’s superb opening goal count.
Antonio Rüdiger was deep and appeared to be going nowhere in particular, which may have been why Madrid left him alone, but appearances can be deceptive. And as he stepped forward almost absent-mindedly, twice rolling the ball under his studs, he was waiting for the movement ahead of him. Pulisic provided it, dashing off the shoulder of Nacho and Rüdiger clipped a lovely, almost lazy-looking pass that dropped behind the Madrid defence.
Deep inside the area, Pulisic controlled, cut back, dribbled round Thibaut Courtois, and smashed the ball into the net past the two men on the line. It was a superb goal and it had been a superb start. Just 37 seconds had passed when Pulisic had first threatened to get in, and there was no letting up, the American finding Mount at the far post four months later. Four minutes after that Mason Mount raced away to help make a chance for Timo Werner, three yards out. The save from Courtois was as awesome as the finish was awful.
Every time Chelsea set off, and it was often, they sliced through Madrid. N’Golo Kanté repeatedly accelerated through the middle, to the right and left Pulisic and Mount dashed into open space, the wing-backs overlapped outside them. Chelsea were on a different level physically and technically. Madrid could barely breathe, watching blue shirts come at them from everywhere. When they did press, Chelsea worked past them and into the pitch beyond.
But Madrid are the T-1000 hanging of the back bumper. Fail to kill them off and they will be back again, however beaten they appear, however many pieces you have left them in. And while Chelsea had the lead now, they did fail to kill Madrid off. That opportunity for Werner was the clearest of them but there were more, Courtois immediately making his second save of the night. Next César Azpilicueta’s ball in just evaded Werner and Dani Carvajal had to dive to block Ben Chilwell’s cross.
As the rain began Madrid were in trouble, overwhelmed. Twice in a minute Chelsea were away again; both times a simple ball to release Werner in the inside right position was over hit. Soon Chilwell was on the end of a delivery from Pulisic, Madrid sliced open again. And yet, there they were in the rearview mirror. Karim Benzema, especially. Out of nowhere he smashed a shot against the post, then from a Chelsea attack brought to an end by another Carvajal interception came the Madrid break and corner that levelled the tie.
It was played short: Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Marcelo. His diagonal delivery was headed back across goal by Éder Militão and Benzema, back turned and on another plane controlled with his head, spun on his heel and smashed a volley into the net. Madrid were alive, somehow, even as Chelsea came back at them, Werner just unable to get his head to Pulisic’s ball, Thiago Silva hitting wide, and Mount dashing away. On the touchline, Tuchel could not make sense of it. How was this not done?
If he feared the moment had gone, the momentum seemed to have done the same, Madrid able to wrest some control as the second half began. A neat flick from Kanté saw Werner fire off a shot that Raphaël Varane blocked but much as the Chelsea manager shouted “go, go, go” from the touchline, 20 minutes passed in which the pulse slowed and the nerves eased. The rain did too, both storms passed now.