The fear had nagged for Chelsea during the first half and it would harden after the interval. Just how many chances did they need? And, more to the point, would they live to regret their profligacy?
Thomas Tuchel’s team had enjoyed the better of the first leg but this was on another level. They tore into Real Madrid and the opportunities that they created to add to Timo Werner’s goal midway through the first half were of the gilt-edged variety.
Time and again, they saw the whites of Thibaut Courtois’s eyes only to blink first. Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and N’Golo Kanté wasted one-on-ones with the goalkeeper, previously of this parish, and there were other openings. Havertz sent one of them against the crossbar. So Chelsea fretted.
While Madrid could not be killed off, the great old survivors retained a puncher’s chance. It would have been a travesty had they found it and, happily for Chelsea, they finally found a way to steady the nerves and allow the celebrations to start. When Kanté won the ball high up from Nacho, Madrid were stretched and when the substitute Christian Pulisic crossed, there was Mount to force home.
Chelsea are on their way to a third Champions League final and, with their blend of creativity and defensive solidity, Manchester City will face an exacting test. The prospect is mouth-watering.
There were an awful lot of Champions League winners’ medals in the Madrid lineup, with Sergio Ramos bringing four of them after he passed a late fitness test. It added to the jeopardy confronting Chelsea, who knew that had they been more clinical in last week’s first-leg, the tie could have been over. They could not dwell on the missed opportunity. This was all about gilding another one.
The psychological challenge was immense and the same was true of the difficulty of striking the correct tactical balance. Nil-nil would do for Chelsea but Tuchel had said beforehand that he did not want merely to bolt the back door. Tuchel’s mind whirred as he computed Real’s system and movements.
Gone was the 3-5-2 of the first leg and in was a more typical 4-3-3 which featured plenty of flexibility. Luka Modric roamed high, looking more like a No10 at times while, as Eden Hazard drifted inside from the left, Ferland Mendy pushed up from left-back. Hazard was particularly hard to pin down.
Chelsea dared not give Karim Benzema any room and yet he found a yard on 26 minutes, taking a touch on the edge of the area after a neat buildup orchestrated by Modric and unloading for the bottom corner. Édouard Mendy got down smartly to tip away.
The hosts made early inroads up the left through Mount, Werner and Ben Chilwell and they even had the ball in the net on 18 minutes only for an offside flag to deny them. The goal celebration music had started up when Werner turned home Chilwell’s cross but he was correctly adjudged to have strayed.
Kanté started that move and he was central to the breakthrough goal, spinning away from one white shirt and then flicking on the after-burners to reach a ball ahead of Casemiro. He played a give-and-go with Werner before slipping in Havertz, who was confronted by Courtois, all six foot six inches of him. So Havertz went for the chip.
It was pitched high – it had to be – and came back down off the crossbar. Werner had followed in and he was left with an easy header into the open goal. Chelsea were the more proactive team in the first half but they had cause to rue a series of poor decisions as they pushed and Madrid retreated.
Werner had Tuchel howling when he misdirected a final ball on 32 minutes but he was not the only offender. Havertz ignored better placed teammates in first-half injury time when he ran into a trap set by Ramos. The positive reading was that Chelsea were posing questions.
And yet Madrid could have been level at the interval. Again it was the sharp movement of Benzema that proved too much and Modric picked him out with a lovely cross from the left. Benzema rose and directed his header towards the roof of the net but again Mendy turned behind.
A noisy mob of Chelsea fans had lined the entrance to the stadium beforehand to welcome in their team but, once inside, it was eerily still. The new normal does not get any easier to take and the weirdness was heightened by what was at stake.
Chelsea continued to push as the second half started and it was remarkable that their lead was not unassailable by the 59th minute. That was when Jorginho sent Havertz clean through, only for Courtois to make a one-on-one block.
Earlier, Havertz had watched a towering header from César Azpilicueta’s cross rattle the crossbar, Thiago Silva headed over after rising unchallenged to meet a Chilwell free-kick and Mount lifted high over the bar with only the goalkeeper to beat having swapped passes with Werner.
The feeling that Real’s goal was leading a charmed life deepened when Werner broke on 66 minutes and slipped in the overlapping Kanté. His shot was blocked yet again by Courtois.
When would Chelsea land the decisive blow? Mount gave the answer with five minutes to play and, at last, he and his teammates could exhale.