June 15, 2021

Chelsea come out of Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium with huge Champions League semifinals first leg advantage after holding Real Madrid in 1-1 draw

The controversy and commotion surrounding the short-lived European Super League was cast aside for a few welcomed hours Tuesday in rainy Madrid for the resumption of the continent’s cornerstone, the UEFA Champions League.

And on a night pitting two of the world heavyweights who nine days earlier had threatened to break from the tournament, a young American from Pennsylvania burst back into the spotlight and put his club in position to reach the May 29 final.

Christian Pulisic, a 22-year-old winger from Hershey, scored in the 14th minute, and Chelsea happily accepted a 1-1 draw at Real Madrid in the opening act of a two-leg semifinal.

The Blues will return home to west London for next Wednesday’s return leg, needing a victory or a scoreless draw to secure passage to the championship game in Istanbul against Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain. Pulisic’s strike provided a vital away goal — the first tiebreaker, should the teams finish even on aggregate score.

Before Tuesday, a U.S. men’s national team player had never scored in a Champions League semifinal. Pulisic also became the first to score against the Spanish titans in an official competition. And now he is on the cusp of becoming the first to play in a final — an important steppingstone for American soccer.

He started on the right wing, threatened consistently in the first half and played 65 minutes before being replaced for tactical purposes — another glowing performance after working himself back into Manager Thomas Tuchel’s good graces this spring.

Chelsea took the early initiative, and Pulisic was in the middle of it.

In the 10th minute, Mason Mount made a pacey run out of midfield and crossed to Pulisic, who headed the ball to Timo Werner for a six-yard stab and an almost-certain goal. Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, however, used his right foot to make a terrific kick save.

Four minutes later, Pulisic scored his fifth Champions League goal, breaking a tie with DaMarcus Beasley for the U.S. career record. He timed his run perfectly to get behind the defense and cushioned Antonio Rüdiger’s long ball with a soft touch. Courtois came off his line to challenge the free-running Pulisic, but the American used quick, tight footwork to pull the ball from the lunging Courtois and calmly fire an 11-yard shot past two retreating defenders.

Chelsea aimed to ride the momentum to another deserved goal. Pulisic was targeted by Madrid, absorbing hard tackles, the second of which resulted in Vinicius Junior’s yellow card.

Madrid, though, began to find its way. From beyond the penalty area, Karim Benzema stroked a powerful shot off the far post. And in the 29th minute, Chelsea failed to clear the ball from danger in the penalty area. In an elegant sequence, Benzema headed the ball to himself and used a wicked side volley from seven yards to tie the score.

Pulisic took one for the team in the 38th minute, disrupting a Madrid foray with a tackle from behind, resulting in a yellow card.

The score was level at halftime, but given its bright start, Chelsea surely felt it deserved to be ahead.

The second half lacked energy and opportunities, which, given the setting and circumstances, worked in Chelsea’s favor.

The Blues have been fantastic defensively since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard in January, and in another resolute performance they saw out the match and embraced a draw that felt like a victory — thanks, in large part, to Pulisic.

Chelsea had a promising opportunity to take the lead in 78th minute, but Hakim Ziyech’s free kick was comfortably saved by Courtois. Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy recorded an 89th minute save, which ended a stretch of Real Madrid possession and helped preserve the first-leg draw.

They will compete in the second leg on May 5 at Stamford Bridge in London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *