Christian Pulisic and Chelsea are in a difficult spot following a first-leg home loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinal, while Zack Steffen is one yellow card closer to a big appearance for Manchester City.
Chelsea 1 – 3 Real Madrid
In a game that began under heavy rain, Christian Pulisic and Chelsea were no match for Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, who avenged last year’s semifinal with a clinical hat-trick to sink the Blues.
Playing his first game since guiding the USMNT to World Cup qualification, the American star was surprisingly ineffective in his 63 minutes on the field, completing a respectable 25 of 32 attempted passes amidst 42 touches, but only managing a pair of shots, both off-target and of little threat to the visiting goal.
Los Blancos were tantalizingly close to opening the scoring after just ten minutes when Vinicius Junior’s looping attempt from near the penalty spot beat Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy, but smacked off the cross bar.
The Brazilian was however the trigger for their opening goal 11 minutes later, combining on a field-stretching give-and-go with Benzema that sent him up the left side, into the area, with plenty of space. Rather than cut inwards, he picked out his French teammate with a pinpoint cross to the spot for a powerful header to give the visitors the 1-0 lead.
Benzema struck again just three minutes later, this time combining with Luca Modric. The Croatian surgeon struck a beauty of a cross towards the edge of the six-yard box from just beyond the upper-right corner of the area. Once gain, the French star was waiting to finish the chance, this time with a spectacular, off-balance, precision header back across the face of goal, where it flew in just inside of the right upright.
Stunned by the sudden turn of events, Chelsea did manage to stop the bleeding, and after a period of hard pressing were able to pull one back six minutes before the half.
Reece James did well to maintain possession on the right and struck a centering pass to Jorginho at around 28 yards out. The Brazilian took one touch to settle the ball and hit a pass forward towards the far post, which Kai Havertz powerfully headed in to cut the lead.
Benzema nearly completed his hat trick moments later, breaking free on the right, only to send his shot unnecessarily wide of the far post. However, he did net his third less than one minute after the restart with a bit of unexpected help.
The typically flawless Mendy inexplicably shanked an attempted pass well outside of his area to center back Antonio Rudiger. The German was unable to recover the ball in time, and Benzema was happy to accept the gift at his foot, taking one touch to break free of the defender and strike a low-roller from 25 yards out into the empty net for the 3-1 advantage.
Pulisic left the field three minutes past the hour mark along with Jorginho as a part of a double-switch for Romelu Lukaku and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Thomas Tuchel’s tactical adjustments, while perhaps well-reasoned, had little effect on Chelsea’s fortunes. Lukaku was at the center of Chelsea’s best chance in the late-going, fighting to keep possession in the middle of the area and laying the ball off to Hakim Ziyech for a short blast that narrowly missed three minutes into added time.
However, the drab finale saw Real Madrid take their first-ever outright win against the Blues in European competition, and claiming a commanding two-goal margin after the first 90 minutes of this two-legged quarterfinal.
Pulisic will have to wait until the second leg to recreate his goalscoring heroics of last year against the Spanish champions. The two teams will meet again in the Bernabéu on Tuesday, with a trip to the semifinal on the line.
Zack Steffen was on the bench as usual for Manchester City in their first-leg 1-0 home win over Atletico Madrid. With starting keeper Ederson picking up a unnecessary yellow card in added time for petulant time-wasting, the current USMNT starter will be in line for a high-pressure start should City continue their run and the Brazilian see another yellow in the process.