LONDON (AFP) - Karim Benzema's hat-trick fired Real Madrid to a stunning 3-1 win against Chelsea that put the Champions League holders on the brink of elimination after a dramatic quarter-final first leg on Wednesday (April 6).
Benzema produced a masterclass at Stamford Bridge as the France striker netted twice in the first half with two perfectly-taken headers.
Kai Havertz reduced the deficit before the interval, but Benzema punished a woeful mistake from Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy in the second half to complete his treble.
It was the sublime Benzema's second successive Champions League hat-trick after he single-handedly inspired their epic comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 second leg.
Carlo Ancelotti's side are in pole position to advance to the semi-finals as they return to Madrid for the second leg on April 12.
Asked if the tie was still winnable, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel replied: “No. Not at the moment, no.
“Because we have to find our level back, I don’t know where it is since the international break.
“If things change, maybe, but how many clubs in worldwide football could do what we need, three goals difference? How often does this happen?”
He barely had time to sit down for his post-match press conference before he let rip at his players.
“It was one of the worst first halves that I saw from us here at Stamford Bridge. It’s very disappointing,” he said.
“We lost shape and sharpness. I don’t really have an explanation. Before the international break, we had a long winning streak and were very competitive.
“We can speak about the same defensive performance from five days ago. It is seven goals conceded. It’s alarming. Nothing has changed in our approach.”
After losing to Chelsea in last season's Champions League semi-finals, Real will have the opportunity to exact revenge at the Bernabeu.
Real won the last of their 13 Champions League titles in 2018 and, while they may not be favourites in this year's tournament, their ruthless victory in west London was a significant statement of intent from the La Liga leaders.
"We had a fantastic performance up front from Benzema,” Ancelotti said.
“He’s getting better every day like wine. We played well. It was a good night.
“We have an advantage but we have a lot of respect for this team who were the winners of the last Champions League.”
Chelsea were a shadow of the supremely organised side that marched to their second Champions League crown last year and won six successive games in all competitions before the recent international break.
Blues boss Thomas Tuchel had dismissed Saturday's 4-1 home defeat against Brentford in the Premier League as nothing to worry about.
But in truth that shock loss had exposed some major flaws in Chelsea's defence that Real gleefully exploited.
Ancelotti, who led Chelsea to the Premier League title in 2010, was back on the bench after testing negative for Covid and Real were quickly into their stride.
An incisive counter saw Federico Valverde and Benzema combine to set up Vinicius Junior for a fierce strike that cannoned off the bar.
Thibaut Courtois was mercilessly booed by Blues fans on his return to the Bridge, where he spent seven seasons as Chelsea's keeper before joining Real in 2018.
But there was sweet revenge for Courtois as Benzema put Real ahead in the 21st minute.
It was a rapier thrust, with Benzema sending Vinicius surging away from the out of position Andreas Christensen.
Vinicius' cross was perfect for Benzema and he looped a superb header over Mendy into the top corner from 10 yards.
Benzema was proving Madrid's maestro once again and three minutes later he doubled Real's advantage.
Showing all his experience, the 34-year-old peeled away from Thiago Silva before planting a clinical header into the far corner from Luka Modric's pin-point cross.
It was Benzema's 10th Champions League goal this term, equalling the European Cup record for a Frenchman set by Just Fontaine in 1958-59.
Chelsea were shell-shocked and Dani Carvajal slalomed through for a shot that Mendy blocked before Christensen scrambled it off the line.
Tuchel's team desperately needed a response and Havertz delivered five minutes before half-time.
Jorginho's deft cross caught Carvajal ball-watching and Havertz glided behind him to bury a powerful header past Courtois for his 12th goal this season.
Tuchel sent on Mateo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech at half-time, but Mendy's nightmare moment arrived just one minute after the break.
There should have been no danger when Mendy intercepted a long pass outside his area, but the Senegal keeper horribly miscued his ball towards Antonio Rudiger.
Benzema punished Rudiger's surprising reluctance to commit to the tackle, stealing possession to slot into the empty net as Tuchel looked on in disbelief.
Benzema is the first player to score hat-tricks in consecutive Champions League knockout ties since Cristiano Ronaldo for Real in 2017.
Chelsea tried to hit back and Courtois made a brilliant tip-over from Cesar Azpilicueta's strike.
But Romelu Lukaku's wretched headed miss summed up a night to forget for Chelsea, whose last chance saw their nemesis Courtois deny Reece James.