Karim Benzema celebrates equalizing for Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal against Chelsea at the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium in Madrid on Tuesday. The game ended 1-1, with the second leg in London on May 5. REUTERS

Chelsea goes from ‘dark horse’ to contender after seizing away-goal advantage in Champions League semifinal

MADRID-A potentially vital away goal by Christian Pulisic gave Chelsea the advantage in its Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid, with Los Blancos manager Zinedine Zidane afterward full of praise for Thomas Tuchel’s surprise-package Blues.

After a poor start to the season, Chelsea had not been in the conversation about potential winners of the competition when the last-16 draw was made back in December. However, the Blues can now start dreaming of adding to their solitary Champions League title, won in 2012, thanks to a 14th-minute opener from Pulisic, who became the first US international to score in the tournament’s last four.

A red-hot Karim Benzema equalized on a rainy night at Madrid’s temporary home venue during the pandemic, the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium, in the first Champions League match since the controversial Super League folded last week.

The largely closed breakaway competition would have had Madrid as one of its leaders, and Chelsea also was among its founding members before dropping the idea along with the other English clubs. Madrid didn’t officially back out of the Super League but had downplayed the possibility of retaliation by UEFA in its Champions League matches.

There were no refereeing controversies in Tuesday’s match, and Madrid boss Zidane declared himself happy with the result while admitting his team had faced a formidable foe in Chelsea, which has been transformed under Tuchel following the firing of Frank Lampard in January.

“In the second half we were much better. We had better control over the game. In the end, we’re alive and in general we’re happy,” said Zidane.

“You also have to say that the other team are a very good side. They had 16 clean sheets (in Tuchel’s previous 21 games in charge) and in the end you see that out on the pitch.”

The second leg is at Stamford Bridge in London on May 5. Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain contest the other semifinal.

Chelsea got off to a fast start and had chances to add to its lead after Pulisic opened the scoring off a high pass by Antonio Rudiger. Pulisic calmly got past goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois before hitting the net.

“It was a great finish, great composure,” Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta said of the 22-year-old Pulisic, who has been thriving after an injury-hit start to the campaign.

“He’s an amazing player, he’s a young player, he’s growing and improving. I’m very pleased with his goal because he’s an important player for the team.”

Madrid tied the match on Benzema’s volley from inside the area in the 29th minute, and there were few significant chances either way during the rest of the game.

Benzema’s goal came a few minutes after he clipped the post with a long-range effort. The French striker controlled a loose ball with his head before turning and firing a volley into the top of the net for his 13th goal in his last 14 matches.

In the absence of injured captain Sergio Ramos, Madrid struggled defensively with its setup of three central defenders.

“We started the game very, very well-very aggressively, with a lot of quality,” Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel said. “We deserved to win the first half. We had a lot of chances. We should have scored at least one more when the chances and half-chances were there.”

Former Chelsea forward Eden Hazard, coming off a long injury layoff, entered the match in the second half but couldn’t find spaces to spark Madrid to victory.

Madrid, making a record 14th semifinal appearance, won three straight Champions League titles from 2016-18, before Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus, but the 13-time champion was eliminated in the last 16 in the last two editions of the competition.

Chelsea won the European title in 2012 and returned to the semifinals two years later, but hadn’t been back to the last four since.

Tuchel is trying to make it to a second consecutive final after a runner-up finish with PSG last season. Perhaps more encouragingly for the Blues, Tuchel has never lost in his five matches so far against Madrid in the Champions League.

Agencies via Xinhua