Chelsea woke up on Tuesday in the mood.
Thomas Tuchel had declared it mission “almost impossible”, with Manchester United – at PSG in 2019 – the only one of 43 sides in the Champions League era to have overturned a deficit of two or more goals when heading away for the second leg.
That was the size of the task. Tuchel knew it, but he also dared his Chelsea side, the defending European champions, to “dream”.
From dangling by a thread, their defence firmed up as the evening went on, with the Santiago Bernabeu faithful left stunned as two Chelsea goals put the tie back level on aggregate with 40 minutes of normal time remaining.
It was no more than Chelsea deserved. A reward for their tenacity, with captain N’Golo Kante everywhere and Mason Mount looking particularly sharp, while Antonio Rudiger had not only kept Karim Benzema quiet but headed in their second on the night as well.
A VAR call prevented them from taking a 3-0 lead, with the reprieve waking the Bernabeu crowd up somewhat, but eventually Timo Werner was coolness personified when scoring a third that counted for Chelsea.
Suddenly the almost impossible was happening, with Chelsea heading towards a feat seldom seen in the Champions League, and towards the semi-finals too.
Then along comes Luka Modric. One touch to turn, another to set himself, then the third a pass with the outside of his right foot that will go down in the annals of football history.
The assist to end all assists was finished thanks to a terrific first-time volley from Rodrygo, and having looked down and out, this moment of brilliance lifted Real’s spirits and took the tie to extra time.
And then, six minutes in, a third Karim Benzema header of the tie swung it back in Real’s favour, with Chelsea exposed down their right before a Rudiger slip allowed Real’s in-form striker a free head at goal.
From going down as a tactical masterclass, to bowing out after some Modric magic and a costly slip. Tuchel knew it would take a “fantastic script”, but the Hollywood ending was to be Real’s, with the evergreen Modric and Benzema both producing Oscar-worthy moments over the course of this tie.
And so, for all of Chelsea’s fight, they are out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, while they are comfortably third best in the Premier League as well. They deserve to be commended for almost completing an unlikely comeback in Madrid, but ultimately they fell short, with the three goals conceded at Stamford Bridge last week proving crucial – so too some big missed chances late on in the second leg.
They will not panic, there is still the FA Cup to be won, while Tuchel’s job will not be under threat, but once the dust settles from this manic night of Champions League action, the reality will kick in that Chelsea have not been good enough to challenge on the domestic and European stage this season.
Yes, it was a terrific 80 minutes at the Bernabeu, but 80 minutes will not win you trophies, and having started the campaign as Premier League contenders – thanks to “final piece of the puzzle” Romelu Lukaku – they will have to make do with the FA Cup at best.
Chelsea have sacked managers for less, but there can be no denying Thomas Tuchel is the right man to steer them through this disappointing moment. The new owners, whoever they might be, may not be so forgiving next season, however.