Chelsea 1-3 Real Madrid: Benzema netted two brilliant headers and capitalised on an Edouard Mendy howler to put the Spaniards in control of the quarter-final
That is the main storyline from a remarkable night of Champions League football at Stamford Bridge, as the Real Madrid great became just the second player to score hat-tricks in the competition in successive knock-out games.
The only other player to do so was the player he supported in Cristiano Ronaldo, which itself symbolises how Benzema has now taken centre stage, at the age of 34.
Such calls to history lent an element of foreboding to Chelsea’s future that go way beyond their future in this season’s competition after a 3-1 home defeat.
There is at least some doubt over whether the club can quite be the same force they were during the Roman Abramovich era, as prospective new owner Todd Boehly watched from the stands.
There was an element of history there, too, since many might point to how the Russian’s first Champions League experience was watching a Real Madrid star score a hat-trick in England. Many others might point to the fact they just won’t have the same financial power, which added a further edge to this game.
There was definitely even more of a sense that the events of the last month are finally getting to the squad, as this 3-1 defeat at home so quickly followed a 4-1 battering to Brentford on the same pitch.
Whereas Saturday was Chelsea being brought low in an embarrassment, however, this was more about a great rising to new levels.
This is why Benzema’s career has been almost as distinctive as it has been distinguished. He has had three main stages. The first was as wonder kid. The second was as selfless support act. The third, now, is as grand master where his very experience has seemed to afford him a greater level of excellence.
Chelsea couldn’t reach his levels here.
That made his excellent first goal somewhat ironic, since he actually had to go low to get the connection. With Vinicius Junior supplying another whipped delivery from yet another frenetic surge forward, Benzema somehow stooped to almost divert the ball – albeit with some power – past Edouard Mendy.
Chelsea were still recollecting themselves when Madrid’s grand stars just played through them again. That was a lot more difficult than it sounds, though, because the second goal was an exhibition piece to go with the historic feat of that hat-trick.
As Benzema again darted between Chelsea defenders to deceptively create space, the ball was cut back to Luka Modric at the edge of the box. He went for a wondrous first-time ball that had the most inviting arch on it, but suddenly seemed that bit too high for Benzema. There was no problem, though. There was only the highest of class.
Benzema simply arched back himself to guide this one into the bottom corner.
Two very different headers, both of the highest class.
Chelsea, for their part, weren’t rocked. At least not yet. Continuing the frantic pace of the match, they just went right for it again.
It wasn’t long until they had a fine headed goal from a class player of their own, although it did require a step up from someone else.
Jorginho had been having a torrid game, as if the pace was too much for him, as Madrid seemed to constantly surge past his area. Here, he offered the poise required. The Italian offered a cross that was itself almost the equal of Modric’s.
If that was delicate, Havertz’s response was pure power. He thundered a header through Thibaut Courtois’s hands, the manner of the goal all the sweeter given how the goalkeeper left Stamford Bridge.
The home crowd constantly reminded him of that in the most vulgar terms – and the most direct, going by the straightness of one chant (“Thibaut, Thibaut you’re a…”) – pretty much all night.
There was one moment they were stunned into silence, though, and that was at that end by one of Courtois’s eventual successors.
With the pace just not letting up at the start of the second half, there did look a moment’s respite when Casemiro just lumped a ball up as Chelsea hurriedly chased an equaliser.
Mendy seemed to have all the time in the world as he collected the ball close to the centre circle, only to play the most calamitous pass. Antonio Rudiger wasn’t at his most alert, and it allowed Benzema to steal in for a fortuitous completion of his hat-trick.
That was something we had seen before from the French star, not least in his last hat-trick.
He did it to Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League final. He did it to Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16.
That did at least see the game fall into a discernible pattern, for probably the first time. Madrid sat on their lead, fully content – and able – to break at pace. Chelsea threw everything at them.
They even threw Romelu Lukaku on.
His poor form was put into even more perspective, as he missed a header that was a much easier opportunity than any of those scored on the night. With the ball virtually dropping onto his head, and Courtois seemingly rooted to his spot, Lukaku somehow put it wide.
Such opportunities reminded that Chelsea aren’t out yet. There’s no away goal, they are clearly capable of creating as many opportunities at the Bernabeu.
Madrid do still look a little more vulnerable. It might have been a different story had it not been for entirely self-enforced errors, such as Mendy’s pass and Lukaku’s miss. That could have ensured it was 2-2. Benzema is one player who currently doesn’t deal in “coulds” or “ifs”, though.
He Benzema looks better than ever.
He might not just offer the story of these rounds. He might well be making it his season.