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Never write Real Madrid off! Champions League legends Benzema and Modric step up again to break Chelsea hearts

23:00 BST 12/04/2022
Karim Benzema Real Madrid 2021-22
The pair played key roles in Los Blancos overcoming Thomas Tuchel's side 5-4 on aggregate, sparing Carlo Ancelotti's blushes in the process

Match statistics: Real Madrid 2-3 Chelsea

Santiago Bernabeu was on the verge of turning on Real Madrid, their Champions League campaign on the verge of reaching an embarrassing conclusion.

But with just over 10 minutes to go against Chelsea, their three key men turned it on, saving Los Blancos from a humiliating capitulation, and Carlo Ancelotti from headlines calling for his head.

Madrid snatched victory from the jaws of defeat - even if the final scoreline on the night was a 3-2 loss - earning themselves a 5-4 win on aggregate to reach the Champions League semi-finals.

It was a triumph, though, secured by individual quality and collective sweat, rather than by Ancelotti’s cunning design.

With Chelsea rampant and 3-0 up, Kai Havertz’s header was brilliantly saved by Thibaut Courtois, and two minutes later, Luka Modric sublimely set up Rodrygo’s crucial strike.

The evergreen Croatian played an instinctive, brilliant, dipping pass with the outside of his boot, which landed perfectly at Rodrygo’s feet for him to fire past Edouard Mendy.

The Brazilian’s goal forced extra time, and six minutes into it, Karim Benzema - who Antonio Rudiger had marshalled well until that point - headed home to put Madrid in front on aggregate.

The performance as a whole to that point had been fragile. Ancelotti’s side looked unsure of their gameplan, nervously sitting on their two-goal first-leg lead.

The Italian wanted Madrid to defend and try to strike on the counterattack with Vinicius Junior and Benzema if they could, but Chelsea penned them in, pressing well and slowly turning the screw.

Goals followed for the visitors, in front of an increasingly angsty Bernabeu crowd.

Mason Mount curled brilliantly past Courtois from the edge of the box in the 15th minute, making Madrid even more unsettled, with their advantage reduced to just one.

Rudiger - who may wear white next season if his Chelsea contract situation is not resolved - put in a monumental performance and headed home the second from a corner, with Madrid missing Eder Militao’s aerial presence.

And when Timo Werner netted the third, after Marcos Alonso’s goal had been ruled out for handball, it looked like Madrid were succumbing to another thrashing like the one Barcelona doled out in the capital a few weeks ago, or Paris Saint-Germain’s dominance over most of the last-16 tie could have led to.

Ancelotti’s gameplan had been unpicked by Thomas Tuchel, who had picked his team up from their Benzema-inspired battering at Stamford Bridge and armed them with what they needed to get on top of Madrid.

They were significantly more alert when it came to cutting passing lines to Benzema, who was starved of service for much of the game.

It took three moments of individual quality to swing the balance in Madrid’s favour, from Courtois, from Modric and from Benzema, while substitute Eduardo Camavinga offered a lot to the team after his introduction, helped them win the midfield battle in extra-time.

Both Camavinga and Fede Valverde have been underplayed by Ancelotti this season, despite Toni Kroos’ indifferent form and Casemiro’s more significant struggles.

A less conservative coach might have brought them into the fold far sooner, although the duo did not let Ancelotti down when finally given their chance.

It is all food for thought for president Florentino Perez, who had not planned to bring Ancelotti in until other options were taken off the table last summer. Some reports suggest the ex-Chelsea boss was the fourth name that Perez turned to.

Mauricio Pochettino, who is poised to leave PSG and is no longer likely to take over at Manchester United, may finally get the chance to take over at the Bernabeu, although there is still a Champions League to play for before then.

Madrid may face an even greater challenge in the semi-final if Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City hold their advantage against Atletico Madrid, and the Catalan is another coach who will believe he can get the better of his opposite number.

Although while Los Blancos retain players as decisive as Benzema, Courtois and Modric - who was serenaded by fans at full-time after playing the full 120 minutes at 36 years old and improving as the game went on - you can never, ever rule them out.