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Chelsea, Eventually, Puts Real Madrid Away to Return to the Champions League Final

Chelsea could have finished off Real Madrid in the first leg and missed countless times to do so in the second, but an emphatic semifinal performance was rewarded with a place vs. Man City in the all-English final.

It could have been comfortable. It should have been comfortable. Chelsea outplayed Real Madrid almost from start to finish, just as it had in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals, and yet there was a palpable sense of relief Wednesday when Mason Mount finally got the decisive second goal with six minutes remaining. That secured a 3–1 aggregate win, 2–0 on the day, sending Chelsea to a date with Manchester City in the Champions League final in Istanbul at the end of the month.

The contrast to the drama of its last semifinal success in the competition was startling. In 2012, when Chelsea won its only Champions League to date, it survived wave after wave of pressure against Barcelona, somehow winning 3-2 on aggregate as Fernando Torres sealed the victory with a late goal on the counter at Camp Nou. Here it was Chelsea that swept forward relentlessly, its counters shredding Real Madrid. This was an immensely impressive performance, the only quibble being the fact that it took so long to put the game to bed.

This will be the third all-English final—and the second in the last three seasons—which is an accurate reflection of how dominant the Premier League sides have been this season. Man City and Chelsea at their best are some margin ahead of every other side in Europe, and that will terrify the traditional elites. It was the rise of the petro-clubs, the way they are insulated against the financial storms of the pandemic, that led to the Super League proposals. Man City and Chelsea were the two least convinced members of the rebel 12 who signed up, and the first two clubs to indicate they would be withdrawing. A month after the Super League idea was defeated, they will contest the Champions League final.

Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount celebrate Chelsea's goal vs. Real Madrid

For Thomas Tuchel, there is a chance for instant revenge after defeat with PSG against Bayern Munich in last season’s final. He becomes the first coach to reach two successive finals with different clubs. For Zinedine Zidane and Madrid, major problems lie ahead: the Super League was an attempt to head off major financial problems and this is a squad that, fairly clearly, needs major rejuvenation.

Chelsea was able to spend heavily last summer, and it was two of those new signings who brought the first goal. Timo Werner’s tribulations in front of goal have been a feature of this season. Although he has generally played well, at least since Tuchel took over in January, he has missed a string of simple chances, and had he been a little sharper, both with his finishing and his timing of runs, the tie may have been over far earlier than it was. He had a goal ruled out for a needless offside on Wednesday, before being presented after 28 minutes with a chance he couldn’t miss. N’Golo Kanté was the architect, with his stabbed ball to Kai Havertz, who extravagantly dinked the ball over Thibaut Courtois. The ball looped off the bar, and Werner nodded in from two yards out.

That left Real Madrid in the slightly odd position of having to do what only West Brom has so far managed against Tuchel’s Chelsea so far: score twice. The pattern of the game had been very similar to that in Madrid. Chelsea was much the better side against a largely pedestrian Madrid, but Karim Benzema offered a constant threat, twice drawing excellent saves from Edouard Mendy.

Sergio Ramos and Real Madrid are out of the Champions League

But Benzema aside, this was tame stuff from Madrid. Not for the first time this season, a La Liga side looked physically inferior to English or German opposition. Eden Hazard, back from injury, started on the flank, but having missed so much of this season through injury he looked understandably sluggish. On the other wing, Vinicius Junior, so sprightly against Liverpool in the last round, was involved only intermittently.

Chelsea was so consistently threatening on the break that it seemed like it had to score. Mount, Havertz and Kanté all spurned one-on-ones, and such is the nature of football that the more chances that were missed, the more the sense began to grow that Madrid might somehow, against all logic, get back into it.

It did not. Kanté, yet again, regained possession and fed substitute and U.S. star Christian Pulisic, who cleverly delayed his cross before laying in Mount to score the decisive second goal. It should have been over long before that. It could have been over by halftime in the first leg. But when you win in the end, all of that matters less. Whatever the scoreline, this was an emphatic victory.

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