After Karim Benzema had amazed the Stamford Bridge crowd, Thomas Tuchel stunned those in front of him.
The first question of the Chelsea manager’s press conference after a chastening 3-1 defeat by Real Madrid was whether the tie is still alive. “No,” Tuchel said bluntly. “Not at the moment, no.”
When he was later asked to clarify whether this was exactly what he meant, given it sounded a bit defeatist, the German only doubled down.
“If you want to put it [as your headline] on this sentence put it on this sentence,” he said. “I worry more about Southampton than Real Madrid in the next week. Today, with this performance is it alive? No. If we don’t get our heads and legs straight we will not win in Southampton and then this tie is not alive. If things change, maybe, but how many clubs need three goals and how often did this happen?”
It is of course possible that this was Tuchel’s novel way of trying to motivate the players. He insisted the club’s takeover wasn’t an excuse either. Asked whether it has affected them, Tuchel gave another straight answer. “No.”
It might be the case that Tuchel was attempting to change the mood or spark something within his squad, but all his answers did in the immediate aftermath was alter the story.
The night went from one mostly about Benzema to one where it became about Tuchel. The Chelsea manager may insist the club’s sale hasn’t affected his players, but it looked like some of it was getting to him.
The English media, at the least, have not seen him like this. He was not beaten, exactly – despite his words – but he was markedly downbeat, Put bluntly, Tuchel looked like someone scrambling for answers for the first time in his spell at Chelsea.
The quip within some areas of the ground was that the previous owner would probably have sacked him if he was still in charge. This was well short of the standard, as Tuchel admitted.
“We have to find our level again,” he said. “I don’t know where it is since the international break. The first half is a repetition against Brentford in a quarter-final of the Champions League against Real Madrid. You cannot expect a result from this kind of performance. We have to get things ready for Saturday and not think about today because if we continue to play like this, we won’t get a point at Southampton.”
The frustration should be all the greater for Chelsea because, as brilliant as Benzema and Luka Modric are, this is not a brilliant Madrid. It is a highly vulnerable Madrid, as their rivals at Barcelona recently proved.
It’s difficult not to escape the feeling that Manchester City, if Madrid do meet them in the next round, will enjoy a relatively comfortable win. Then again, people have been saying that about Carlo Ancelotti’s side all season. Meanwhile, they keep producing. They keep showing that nous for knockout football, especially in this specific competition.
Then again, since this is a knockout competition, it is possible that people read too much into these results. Sometimes, as did happen in Madrid’s run of four Champions League victories in five years, circumstances do fall your way without you necessarily pushing your team to their limits.
It is at least highly arguable that both of their last two games in Europe have been more about the opposition than Ancelotti’s side. PSG were all too ready to collapse when events went against them. Chelsea have had almost everything go against them in the last few months, leaving them susceptible to a collapse of their own.
They now need to force another Champions League collapse in an Ancelotti team. That will take quite a feat with Benzema in the team. He displayed a standard that may even have surpassed the peaks he’s already reached in his long career.
Chelsea were some way off their peak, though. The biggest question now is whether Tuchel even knows to get them back there – and get back in this tie.