LONDON (AP) — Back-to-back Champions League hat tricks just reinforce the enduring value of Karim Benzema’s clinical finishing to Real Madrid.
Carlo Ancelotti sees so much more being provided by the 34-year-old forward he compares to a fine wine.
“He is more of a leader every day,” the Madrid coach said after Benzema’s goals produced a 3-1 victory over Chelsea in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. “He feels more and more important in this team and I think that’s what makes the difference. He has so much more personality. He is an example for everyone.”
This latest goal burst could end Chelsea’s title defense, barring the type of second-leg collapse by Madrid that Paris Saint-Germain endured last month at the the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
Benzema now has 37 goals in 36 games in all competitions this season, including the three that turned around the last-16 meeting with PSG.
“They’re magic nights,” Benzema said. “Today we came out to win, to show we’re Real Madrid. Things worked out well for us as we played well, from the first minute to the last.”
The France international is almost single-handedly keeping the Spanish giants on the path to a record-extending 14th European Cup — and a fifth for himself — and powering them to regaining the La Liga title.
Of Madrid’s last 11 goals, 10 have been scored by the mainstay of the team for the last 13 years.
The first two at Stamford Bridge were thumping headers inside three first-half minutes in the driving rain, while the third was gifted to him in a manner that raised doubts about whether Chelsea can muster a comeback in Madrid on Tuesday.
“I think it helped us that our build-up play from the back was good,” said Ancelotti, who won the 2010 Premier League with Chelsea. “We found space between the lines. And then with Benzema and Vinicius we were dangerous.”
Chelsea had given itself hope of recovering when Kai Havertz reduced the deficit with a header five minutes before halftime from Jorginho’s cross.
But only a minute of the second half had elapsed when Chelsea’s slack defending proved so costly.
Edouard Mendy was about 30 yards out from goal when the ball came to him and the goalkeeper brought it down with his chest. Rather than clearing down the field, he sent a short pass tamely to the dawdling Antonio Rüdiger. It was a gift for Benzema to intercept before striking into the unprotected net with Mendy still stranded outside the penalty area.
“I’m happiest to have scored the third,” he said, “as I missed one in the first half and I was thinking about that chance because it’s very important to score goals. Then I got another and I’m very happy.”
The precision of Benzema’s first-half headers — after getting on the end of crosses from Vinicius Jr. in the 21st minute and Luka Modric in the 24th — was in contrast to the shortcomings of Chelsea’s No. 9. Substitute Romelu Lukaku had a great chance with a header of his own when there was still more than 20 minutes to go, but glanced it wide of the post, resulting in groans around Stamford Bridge.
“Very important,” Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said of the miss.
An all-English semifinal is looking less likely. The winner of this quarterfinal will face Manchester City or Atletico Madrid, with City ahead 1-0 after Tuesday’s first leg at the Etihad Stadium.
Asked whether his quarterfinal was still alive, Tuchel sharply replied: “No.”
It showed his frustration after his team’s hold on third place in the Premier League was loosened by a surprising 4-1 loss to Brentford on Saturday.
“We have to find our level back,” Tuchel said, “but we don’t know where it is.”
The most significant action might not even have been on the field for Chelsea on Wednesday. Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly flew in for the game as the tussle to buy the team from sanctioned Russian owner Roman Abramovich intensifies, with the contenders whittled down in recent weeks.
It just adds to the uncertainty hanging over the west London team.
“I will not accept it as an excuse,” Tuchel said.
There was a surprise in Wednesday’s other quarterfinal with Bayern Munich losing 1-0 at Villarreal.
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