Tuchel and Chelsea nearly pulled off a miracle at Bernabeu but future looks less clear

Christensen, Rudiger, and even the manager could depart at the end of the season in break-up of a Champions League-winning side

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Antonio Rudiger stood with head in hands, looking at the celebrating Real Madrid fans and players in the Bernabeu. An epic Champions League tie had revolved around plenty of players, but him more than most. He had scored Chelsea’s second goal of an improbably superb comeback in Spain, but lost his footing when Karim Benzema delivered the ultimately decisive goal.

Rudiger had been arguably the outstanding defender of the Champions League’s knockout stages last season, when Chelsea conceded just two goals, one of them so late to be irrelevant.

Now Real scored five in 210 minutes: two from mistakes – the most grievous Edouard Mendy’s underhit pass, aimed for Rudiger, when Benzema completed his first-leg hat-trick at Stamford Bridge – but three from brilliance.

The genius of Luka Modric, with his wonderful, outside-of-the-boot pass for Rodrygo, just when Chelsea seemed to have completed one of the greatest recoveries in European Cup history, was transformative.

So was Benzema, with four goals over the two legs. And if there is something timeless about Real’s ability to conjure results in Europe, the same might be said about their two talismen, with a combined age in their seventies.

Perhaps they underlined a difference. Modric and Benzema rank among the top half-dozen players on the planet; there is a case for anointing the Frenchman the best right now. Chelsea have no such counterpart, no genuine Galactico. Instead, they relied on formidable organisation and teamwork.

They conquered the continent last season with a formula based on frugality, a low-scoring team with no Benzema equivalent. Romelu Lukaku was supposed to provide such a potent finisher but he missed chances in the first leg and missed the second leg. It summed up his Chelsea career.

Real Madrid v Chelsea ratings

Briefly, it instead appeared that Thomas Tuchel would be the match-winner. He had deemed Chelsea’s task “almost impossible” but for five minutes they had an aggregate lead.

He had reunited the attacking trio from last season’s final. Mason Mount’s brilliant opening goal meant he had scored against Real in successive seasons; when Rudiger struck from his corner, he took his tally for the campaign to 11 goals and 13 assists this season. Timo Werner’s personal renaissance was capped with what briefly looked the decider.

“When I scored my goal, I thought we were through,” the German said. “Nearly a perfect performance from us.”

Thomas Tuchel has only committed to being at Chelsea until the end of the season, and the club's prospective new owners would be wise to ensure he is retained. Getty

There seemed something Tuchel-esque, too, when it seemed as though Marcos Alonso had scored a third for Chelsea minutes earlier. Tuchel has prospered by making wing-backs prolific.

And yet this was a rare occasion when Chelsea looked better with a back four, Tuchel outwitting Carlo Ancelotti with his lopsided midfield diamond. If the first leg represented a rare occasion when Tuchel sent out the wrong team, the second offered proof of his alchemy.

He came in for praise from a distinguished observer. “Whatever happens, Chelsea are blessed with Thomas Tuchel,” tweeted Cesc Fabregas, the former Chelsea midfielder. “What a manager.”

And Chelsea are shrouded in uncertainty about what will happen. Tuchel has only committed to remain for the rest of the season. Any prospective buyer would be advised to keep him.

Yet some change feels inevitable as Chelsea languish in limbo. Andreas Christensen and Rudiger could both depart in the summer. Rudiger was magnificent – “a world-class performance in all belongings,” said Tuchel – and while his devastation at the final whistle was evident, the out-of-contract centre-back might be found at the Bernabeu more permanently next season.

Chelsea now know they will not retain their European crown. They could be facing the break-up of a Champions League-winning side.

Updated: April 13, 2022, 12:24 PM