Fear had annoyed Chelsea during the first half and it would harden after the break. How many opportunities did they need? And, more specifically, would they live to regret their waste?
Thomas Tuchel’s team had enjoyed the best of the first leg, but this was on another level. They stormed Real Madrid and the opportunities they created to add to Timo Werner’s goal midway through the first half were of the golden variety.
Over and over, they saw the whites of Thibaut Courtois’s eyes only to blink first. Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and N’Golo Kanté wasted one-on-one with the goalkeeper, previously from this parish, and there were other starts. Havertz sent one of them against the crossbar. So Chelsea got worried.
Although Madrid could not be eliminated, the great survivors kept the opportunity of a puncher. It would have been a sham if they had found it and, happily for Chelsea, they finally found a way to calm their nerves and allow the celebrations to begin. When Kanté won the ball on top of Nacho, Madrid stretched and when substitute Christian Pulisic crossed, there was Monte to force the goal.
Chelsea are on their way to a third Champions League final and, with their combination of creativity and defensive strength, Manchester City will face a tough test. The prospect is delicious.
There were a host of Champions League winner medals in Madrid’s lineup, with Sergio Ramos bringing back four of them after passing a late fitness test. It added to the danger facing Chelsea, who knew that if they had been more clinical in last week’s first leg, the tie could be over. They couldn’t stop at the missed opportunity. It was about browning another.
The psychological challenge was immense and so was the difficulty of finding the correct tactical balance. Nothing-nothing would do for Chelsea, but Tuchel had said beforehand that he didn’t want to just bolt the back door. Tuchel’s mind buzzed as he calculated Real’s system and movements.
The 3-5-2 of the first leg ended and a more typical 4-3-3 entered that had a lot of flexibility. Luka Modric roamed high, looking more like a number 10 at times, while Eden Hazard came in from the left and Ferland Mendy pushed from the left side. Hazard was particularly difficult to pin down.
Chelsea did not dare to give Karim Benzema room and yet found a yard in the 26th minute, tapping on the edge of the area after a neat build orchestrated by Modric and unloading towards the bottom corner. Édouard Mendy cleverly ducked away.
The hosts made early forays down the left through Mount, Werner and Ben Chilwell and even had the ball in the net in the 18th minute only to be stopped by an offside flag. The goal celebration music had started when Werner flipped home a Chilwell cross, but it was correctly judged to have gone astray.
Kanté started that move and was instrumental in the breakout goal, stepping away from a white shirt and then turning on the afterburners to hit a ball ahead of Casemiro. He played a give and take with Werner before slipping on Havertz, who was confronted by Courtois, who was six feet six inches behind him. So Havertz went for the chip.
He dived high, had to be, and came off the crossbar. Werner had followed him and was left with an easy header into the open goal. Chelsea were the most proactive team in the first half, but had reason to regret a series of poor decisions as they pushed and Madrid pulled out.
Werner made Tuchel howl when he misdirected a final ball in the 32nd minute, but he wasn’t the only offender. Havertz ignored better-placed teammates in first-half injury time when he ran into a trap set by Ramos. The positive reading was that Chelsea was asking questions.
And yet Madrid could have been level in the intermission. Again it was Benzema’s abrupt movement that was too much and Modric took him out with a beautiful cross from the left. Benzema got up and directed his header towards the roof of the net but again Mendy turned around.
A noisy crowd of Chelsea fans had lined up at the stadium entrance beforehand to welcome their team, but, once inside, it was eerily still. The new normal is no easier to take and the stakes increased the rarity.
Chelsea kept pushing as the second half began and it was notable that their lead was not impregnable in the 59th minute. It was then that Jorginho sent Havertz clean, only for Courtois to make a one-on-one block.
Previously, Havertz had seen an imposing header from a crossover cross by César Azpilicueta rattle the crossbar, Thiago Silva headed off after getting up unchallenged to find a Chilwell free kick and Mount soared above the bar with just the goalie for beat after exchanging passes with Werner.
The feeling that Real’s goal was leading a charmed life deepened when Werner broke in the 66th minute and sneaked into Kanté’s overlap. His shot was blocked once again by Courtois.
When would Chelsea land the decisive blow? Mount gave the answer with five minutes to play, and he and his teammates were finally able to breathe.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism