A scarcely believable night at the Bernabeu, that should leave Chelsea wondering how exactly they have gone out.
Many will rightly point to the seemingly eternal magnificence of Luka Modric and Karim Benzema, who together conjured the second of this tie’s sensational comebacks. Chelsea should still only be looking at themselves.
They had the game won, at 3-0 up on the night and 4-3 up on aggregate, only for basic sloppiness to allow Real Madrid to go through with two strikes to make it 5-4 overall after extra-time. Everyone had been pushed to the limit. Two players went beyond. Thomas Tuchel was livid.
That feeling is surely all the more profound given the sense – not for the first time – that Madrid just aren’t that good. It is as if they are constantly favored by circumstances. They would gladly point out they just have the players to exploit any circumstance, and expose any team’s flaws, because there can be absolutely no doubt about Modric and Benzema.
The French star was again the match-winner, hitting his 38th goal of the campaign in his 38th game, and is this Champions League season’s outstanding player.
It is the kind of performance level that should end with delivering the trophy itself, but Madrid now likely to have Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City next.
Then again, given how this Champions League Tuesday alone went, can anyone really bank on anything in this competition?
Look at this game alone, whatever about what happened in Munich.
With the Champions League having developed a capacity for spectacular comebacks in the last few years, this somehow went further, and had two comebacks in one game.
Carlo Ancelotti finally came out the other side.
Tuchel will be wondering how his team let this slip.
The tie was far from dead, as he had proclaimed after 3-1 first-leg defeat, but his team let Madrid live.
That is what will make it all the more galling.
Chelsea in the first half showed what they should have done in the first leg. They weren’t just more intense and focused than Madrid. They looked the better team.
Madrid, for their part, struggled with striking that balance between attack and defense when ahead in the tie. It was far from the first time Ancelotti had been in this situation, too.
That only added to the wave of trepidation that went around the stadium on 14 minutes.
Mateo Kovacic played it low from the left, for Ruben Loftus-Cheek to flick on, if only to Timo Werner’s knee. It is debatable how much the German knew about what happened next, as the ball rebounded forward, but Mason Mount certainly knew what he was doing next.
I have surged onto the loose ball and put it straight into the corner.
Chelsea were soaring. There was a period after the goal when they were already penning Ancelotti’s side in like it was the last 10 minutes. Many of Madrid’s players were looking their age, the team again looking stale.
It was then that they showed their experience. Just as Chelsea were building up momentum, Modric and Toni Kroos got on the ball to slow the game down.
It was a little glimpse of why they have won so much, why they remain so hard to beat, but only temporarily stemmed the tide.
Chelsea came right back at them. Mount’s intensity, in particular, was causing utter panic. There was chaos around their box, and Chelsea were increasingly applying a control of their own.
There was the sense the ball could go anywhere. From one loose ball, James volleyed wide, with referee Szymon Marciniak giving a corner. Antonio Rudiger then gave Chelsea the equalizer, plundering a header.
Madrid couldn’t really complain about decisions going against them, though. Mount might have had a penalty minutes before that, and there was then Marcos Alonso’s goal ruled out for what seemed an innocuous handball.
It was a reprieve for Madrid, and emboldened them enough for Benzema to hit the top of the bar with a header.
The game had seen little of him, although he was obviously building up. It was about to see the sublime and the ridiculous.
It was difficult to know which of those to use for Chelsea’s third, given the scorer, and the circumstances. Maybe both.
Werner was suddenly released into the box, only to look like he had brought the ball too far wide. It was only the set-up for one of his finest goals, albeit from awful defending Madrid. With Casemiro seemingly determined to go to ground as early as possible, Werner side-stepped him once, and then twice, before squirming the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
It was remarkable composition, especially from a player who has become notoriously endearing during his time at Chelsea for rushed finishes and inexplicable misses.
That should have been Madrid done. The next act in this epic was only beginning.
One of the reasons Madrid keep persevering, so often seemingly defying logic, is because a player like Modric is far from done.
He only keeps showing why he is one of the greatest in the history of the game.
On 80 minutes, with Madrid needing something, the Croatian offered divine inspiration. Chelsea had been in a rare moment of retreat, when Rodrygo made a darting run forward. Spotting him at the other end of the pitch, Modric went for an audacious swerved ball with the outside of his foot. It of course dropped perfectly, but didn’t land, as Rodrygo lashed it past Mendy.
The second comeback had started.
It was inevitably Benzema who finished it, by of course finishing with a header.
Madrid were finally playing with momentum, but not to the extent that it should have swept Rudiger to the ground. With the defender prone, though, Benzema stooped to head in Vinicius’ cross.
The Bernabéu was rocking. Chelsea were reeling.
They strived to muster the necessary force, but there was something lacking about it. They no longer believed.
The rest of us could barely believe what we were seeing. Modric and Benzema, however, have seen it all.
It is why, after all this, they can still do it all.