Chelsea have plenty of work to do in the second leg of our Champions League quarter-final after being reduced to 10 men on our way to a two-goal defeat at Real Madrid, but showed signs that there is still hope of a comeback at Stamford Bridge.
It was always going to be a difficult game for Frank Lampard's Chelsea side as we travelled to the reigning European champions, but we gave as good as we got for periods of the game and even seemed to have Real Madrid on the back foot at their own stadium briefly at the start of the second half.
It was also the Blues who showed the most threat early in both halves, with Joao Felix drawing a couple of saves from Thibaut Courtois, but by half time we were a goal down, as Karim Benzema's predatory instincts put him in the right place to turn in the rebound when Kepa Arrizabalaga saved Vinicius Junior's volley, the Frenchman scoring his fifth goal in three games against Chelsea.
Raheem Sterling nearly equalised immediately from Reece James' cross, only to be denied by the keeper, and we briefly took control of the game after the break, but our momentum was halted by an injury to Kalidou Koulibaly, which turned out to be a major turning point in the game as it was closely followed by a red card for Ben Chilwell when he pulled down Rodrygo as the last defender, before we could finish reorganising following that enforced change.
We defended valiantly at times to restrict Real Madrid to a handful of opportunities in the rest of the game, despite being down a man, giving some hope that when we are restored to 11 against 11 with home advantage for the second leg, there is still a chance to salvage a place in the semis, despite Marco Asensio's goal meaning we have a mountain to climb if we are to progress.
Chelsea reverted to a back three, with Thiago Silva returning to the action alongside Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly in defence, ahead of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga. The Brazilian wore the captain’s armband as he made his first appearance in six weeks, since going off with an injury at Tottenham.
On the flanks, Marc Cucurella made way for Ben Chilwell on the left and Reece James continued on the right. In the middle, N’Golo Kante came back in for Conor Gallagher to make just his second start since August – and his first appearance in this season’s Champions League full stop. He was alongside Enzo Fernandez and Mateo Kovacic, forming the same midfield trio that began the Premier League draw with Liverpool just over a week earlier.
The change in shape meant there was no room for Kai Havertz in our attack, but Joao Felix and Raheem Sterling both kept their places from the weekend’s trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Chelsea nearly had a dream start at the Bernabeu, as Joao Felix forced the first save of the game from Thibaut Courtois, at the end of a flowing counter-attack after Real Madrid had begun the game on the offensive.
Enzo got in quickly and played the ball forwards when we won it on the edge of the box, evading the home side’s press to turn their defence. Kante exchanged a one-two with Sterling before releasing Joao Felix in behind the back line and the Portuguese forward held off the challenge of Eder Militao to get his low shot away, but the angle was tightening and it was too close to Courtois.
It took another 10 minutes before Real Madrid first managed to test Kepa and the Spaniard passed it comfortably on his return to his homeland, anticipating Karim Benzema’s near-post effort from a similar angle to Joao’s earlier to hold the ball down low. It was a warning for the Blues, though, as it followed a slick exchange between the dangerous attacking trio of Benzema, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior, demonstrating the threat they carry.
Down but not out
Despite that warning, we were unable to prevent the home side taking the lead midway through the first half, as Real continued their run of scoring in every home Champions League knock-out tie since 2011.
Perhaps inevitably it was Benzema, our nemesis from last season, who found the net. Vinicius managed to escape the attentions of Fofana as a ball was lifted over our defence into the box. His volley was well saved by Kepa down low, but Benzema was in the right place at the right time to tap in the rebound from close range. That means the Frenchman’s last 11 Champions League goals have all come against English teams in the knock-out stages, with five of them coming against Chelsea.
However, Sterling was desperately unlucky not to put us back level almost instantly, as the Blues reacted well to the set-back by pushing for an equaliser as the game briefly became quite an open affair. Reece James found space on the right and swept a low cross ahead of his fellow England international, whose first-time shot looked destined for the bottom corner of the net until Courtois reacted quickly to tip it around the post.
Playing with a plan
The European champions, playing on home soil, were always likely to enjoy plenty of the possession and it proved to be the case, having 62 per cent in the opening 45 minutes, but that didn’t mean they were having things all their own way.
It was clear that Chelsea had come to the Bernabeu with a plan to defend resolutely, while using early passes forward to exploit the pace of Sterling and Joao Felix on the counter, or find the wing-backs in acres of space by the touchlines during longer spells of possession.
We couldn’t quite add to our two first-half chances, though, the best effort coming when Joao Felix’s powerful drive from the edge of the box after a clever turn and run was blocked. Meanwhile, there was no disguising the danger posed by Real Madrid’s front line once they managed to turn towards goal, with Kepa needing to be alert on a couple of occasions before the break to keep them in check.
Just like the first half, Chelsea started the second brightly and were the first of the two teams to call the opposition’s goalkeeper into action, with Joao Felix the man to do so again, although this time his curling effort was far more comfortable for Courtois to deal with.
In fact, early in the second half, it seemed as if the roles had been reversed, with the visitors enjoying a healthy share of the possession while the home side used their pace on the counter, although the threat they still held was shown when Vinicius’ run down our right occupied both James and Fofana, before Modric ended the move by curling just over the crossbar.
However, we were growing into the game more and more. There was a pause while Koulibaly received treatment and was eventually replaced by Marc Cucurella as he was unable to continue, but that didn’t initially dampen our momentum.
Task getting tougher
Five minutes later, our task got even harder, though. Cucurella, still trying to get up to speed, couldn’t keep up with Rodrygo when a long ball was fired over our defence and the covering Chilwell did the only thing he could to stop the Brazilian, reaching out an arm and pulling him back. He was the last Chelsea man and the referee wasted no time in producing the red card to reduce us to 10 men, but at least it was just outside the box, so it only resulted in a free-kick and not a penalty.
Initially it didn’t seem to change too much, but before long Real Madrid’s experienced midfield and veteran striker started to exploit the spaces provided by our numerical disadvantage, prompting further change by Lampard. Trevoh Chalobah came on to allow Cucurella to move out to the left while retaining our back three, and Kai Havertz was also introduced to play as a lone striker.
It wasn't enough to prevent Real Madrid extending their lead, as a substitute of their own found the net. A short corner routine from the left was worked into the box and then back out to the edge, where Marco Asensio arrived to sweep a first-time shot towards goal, which nestled beyond Kepa's reach in the bottom corner.
2-0 to Real Madrid with 15 minutes remaining and, despite a couple of further attack-minded substitutions by the Blues to bring on Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher, with our numbers reduced it was primarily a case of damage limitation for the remainder of the game at the Bernabeu.
Limit the damage we did, though, and Mount even went close to narrowing Real's lead in injury time, but it was charged down by former Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger so the game stayed 2-0. While it wasn't the result we wanted to bring back from Spain, we have at least ensured the tie is still alive and we have a chance as we head back for the decisive second leg in west London.
We briefly return to Premier League action over the weekend, when we host Brighton at Stamford Bridge at 3pm on Saturday 15 April. Then it is time for the second leg of this Champions League quarter-final with Real Madrid, also at the Bridge, with kick-off at 8pm on Tuesday 18 April.
Chelsea (3-5-2): Kepa; W Fofana, Thiago Silva (c) (Mount 76), Koulibaly (Cucurella 55); James, Kante (Gallagher 76), Enzo, Kovacic, Chilwell; Sterling (Havertz 65), Joao Felix, (Chalobah 65)
Unused subs: Mendy, Azpilicueta, Loftus-Cheek, Zakaria, Mudryk, Pulisic, Ziyech
Booked: Fofana 5, Kovacic 87
Sent off: Chilwell 59
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Carvajal, Militao, Alaba, Camavinga (Rudiger 71); Kroos (Tchouameni 84), Modric (Ceballos 82); Rodrygo (Asensio 71), Valverde, Vinicius; Benzema (c)
Unused subs: Lunin, Lopez, Vallejo, Nacho, Odriozola, Vazquez, Hazard, Diaz
Booked: Camavinga 7, Militao 83, Carvajal 87
Scorers: Benzema 22, Asensio 74
Referee: Francois Letexier (France)