Even if Chelsea felt triumph, read the headlines, and heard the exultant cry from the rafters of the Santiago Bernabeu at different moments throughout a fantastic evening, there would be no miracle.
Nobody can dispute the excellent entertainment. Thomas Tuchel talked of his team’s necessity for “a wonderful screenplay.” Chelsea was daring, crazy, and often spectacular. But they were also careless with some of the numerous opportunities that came their way. The first leg resulted in widespread remorse at the loss of an advantage; following Madrid, they will mourn missed opportunities.
You know how it goes, those quasi-philosophical quandaries that sport throws up: hope that kills you versus no hope at all, better to have loved and lost and led 3-0 only to be pegged back vs never scoring at all. So much work has been invested. So close to achieving nirvana.
And still, nothing except catcalls from the other end, which hurt much more since they are unwarranted. Those who traveled from London did so out of devotion and duty, not anticipation, ambition, or hope. They were, however, duped into believing.
When the whistles start blowing around here, you know you’ve got a chance. The Santiago Bernabeu’s piercing banshee yell may be triggered by a perceived officiating injustice, a lost ball, or a missed chance by their opponent; Chelsea didn’t care which. However, they required audial confirmation of development as quickly as feasible. If you make the locals nervous, you might make the players nervous as well.
Real Madrid lost its inherited authority as a result of a flawed strategy of staying with what they had. After chasing the ball for the first ten minutes, Chelsea dominated, dominating the pace of the game. That’s no small effort considering Real Madrid’s midfield three — Luka Modric, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos – would all be on your shortlist for a squad you’d select to hold the ball if your life depended on it.
However, Real were complicit in the loss of control. They enabled their visitors to overload by leaving Karim Benzema alone – and so isolated – in Chelsea’s half as they fell farther towards their own goal. Tuchel ostensibly selected Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a right-wing back, but Reece James, who was selected in central defense, was able to push on as if he were a full-back, allowing Loftus-Cheek to underlap on a frequent basis. Benzema still had to be dealt with by two centre-backs.
That approach seems even odder in light of the new away goals regulation. Sitting back would have been more forgiving if Chelsea had needed at least three goals in 90 minutes. They abandoned it to err on the side of caution after exposing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge by getting Vinicius Jr to pin back James.
The underlying stupidity of such strategy is seen in Real’s most valuable asset: control. It is a characteristic that is considerably simpler to build than it is to re-establish, and it is lot easier to lose than it is to reclaim. It depends on calm heads and composure, which come readily when your side has a two-goal lead but less so when you’ve surrendered twice and your stadium is rocking.
But class is timeless, and few are better at managing the ball, their own narrative, and the pressure heaped on them than this 36-year-old passing genius. With his side behind 3-0 and facing humiliation and media exaggeration, Modric delivered an unbelievable dinked pass that asked Rodrygo to volley it home rather than land the ball on the laces of his boot from 30 yards out.
Even in the context of Chelsea’s domination before it and the end-to-end hysteria that quickly followed, that moment seemed profoundly meaningful. One of the most amazing aspects of this great sport is that single seconds may change the tides, and they are often obvious to detect in real time.
Chelsea still had opportunities, but they had just blown their best one. They led this tie for the first five minutes of the 210 and felt like deserved victors. They were winners on the night in Madrid, but they lost the game. They were merciless in creating opportunities and then wasteful in executing them. They caused more problems for Real Madrid than anybody thought, yet the scarves whirled in exuberant jubilation to commemorate their departure. Chelsea came in quest of a miracle, held it in their hands, and then let it slip away into the night.