Pulisic and Benzema shine as Madrid and Chelsea show Perez they don't need to be anywhere else

By Sports Desk April 27, 2021

Worried about football's global appeal to the younger generation? Fearful the Champions League has lost its lustre beyond the core of 'legacy' (urgh!) fans in its traditional markets?

Perhaps what you need is a dazzlingly skilful 22-year-old becoming the first player from the United States to score in the semi-finals of Europe's top competition, while generally wreaking havoc every time he has the ball.

Florentino Perez must have loved Christian Pulisic taking his Real Madrid apart. The Chelsea forward made the 13-time winners of the competition Perez sought to torpedo last week look more non-league than Super League.

Pulisic was at the heart of an utterly dominant opening for Chelsea – themselves foolhardy signatories to the not-so-brave new world last week – nodding down for his beleaguered attacking colleague Timo Werner to volley too close to Thibaut Courtois between the Madrid posts.

Shortly afterwards, Pulisic took matters into his own hands, darting across a static Los Blancos backline to collect Antonio Rudiger's raking pass. His first touch was poor, but everything else from that point was perfection.

Madrid's defenders scattered and then cowered towards their goalmouth. Werner found himself demoted from strike partner to spectator at The Christian Pulisic Show. The American rounded Courtois and took aim high into the net.

Just after that, Nacho should have been booked for bringing down the goalscorer, with Eder Militao having also escaped censure for clobbering through the same player. Pulisic was everywhere.

If Perez was worried about addled young minds missing all this, no problem. It all happened inside the first 15 minutes. Plenty of time to watch, absorb, enjoy and then stick Fortnite on.

Amid his compilation of violent brain vomits last week, Perez suggested football matches should be shorter to appeal to fans more than 50 years his junior – a demographic with whom he appears to feel he is completely in tune.

Of course, it's an awful idea. And it is hard to think of many teams who would suffer more in a world of fast food football than the aging Real Madrid team he no longer has the bank balance to reupholster.

Zinedine Zidane opted to match Chelsea's shape, only to find a reinforced five-man backline somehow riddled with holes as Pulisic and Werner made merry early on.

Much is made of the esteemed midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric having a combined age of 95. As N'Golo Kante jackhammered around them, each one of them looked about 95.

Collectively, they needed 20 minutes or so to click into gear. Even then, they negotiated the rain-lashed terrain of Valdebebas tentatively.

The one exception was Karim Benzema, Madrid's talismanic centre-forward who nodded and licked his lips with menace during the pre-game anthem, before basically playing Chelsea on his own for a good while.

At a time when Madrid's superstars have moved on from either the club or their peak playing days, Benzema stands tall week after week.

Against the run of play, he had his 71st Champions League goal, drawing level with Madrid great Raul in fourth on the all-time list. Inside a crowded penalty area, he controlled the ball with his forehead before swivelling to detonate an unstoppable volley.

Benzema's goal was one that beautifully combined the cerebral and the visceral and would have been at home in any of Madrid's previous great eras in this competition, eras that are connected to the present by such moments of brilliance.

Goals like Benzema's shimmer brighter through their link to past context. A great Real Madrid goal in a European Cup semi-final really means something.

From that moment, Chelsea's more nimble operators became engaged in an arm wrestle that was more to Madrid's liking. Even when Thomas Tuchel introduced Kai Havertz, Reece James and Hakim Ziyech in a triple change after the hour, the hosts remained upright on weary limbs.

Having seen his team be so inept in the initial exchanges, Zidane was able to play with Chelsea's tensions and emotions by sending on Eden Hazard.

It remained 1-1, a result most teams would be delighted to take into a home second leg. But Madrid do funny things in this tournament. They defy logic to find reserves that should have long run dry. They are propelled by purpose and history.

Above all the others, simply wanting to take his team away from the Champions League might have been Florentino Perez's most stupid idea of all.

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