Another Benzema hat trick gives Madrid 3-1 edge over Chelsea

Real Madrid's Karim Benzema celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid at the San Mames stadium in Bilbao, Spain, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Ricardo Larreina)
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LONDON (AP) — Make that back-to-back Champions League hat tricks for Karim Benzema.

Defending champion Chelsea was on the receiving end this time as the 34-year-old forward showed his enduring scoring quality by leading Real Madrid to a 3-1 win Wednesday in the first leg of the quarterfinals.

Having already turned around the last-16 meeting against Paris Saint-Germain with a treble, Benzema is almost single-handedly keeping the Spanish giant on the path to a 14th European Cup. The France forward now has 37 goals in 36 games in all competitions this season.

His first two at Stamford Bridge were thumping first-half headers in the driving rain, while the third was gifted to him in a manner that raised doubts about whether Chelsea can muster a comeback in Madrid on Tuesday.

The west London club had given itself hope of recovering when Kai Havertz reduced the deficit with a header five minutes before halftime.

But only a minute of the second half had elapsed when Chelsea’s slack defending proved so costly.

Edouard Mendy was about 30 yards out from goal when the ball came to him and the goalkeeper brought it down with his chest. Rather than clearing down the field, he sent a short pass tamely to the dawdling Antonio Rüdiger. It was a gift for Benzema to intercept before striking into the unprotected net with Mendy still stranded outside the penalty area.

The precision of Benzema’s first-half headers — after getting on the end of crosses from Vinicius Jr. and Luka Modric — was in contrast to the shortcomings of Chelsea’s No. 9. Substitute Romelu Lukaku had a great chance with a header of his own when there was still more than 20 minutes to go, but glanced it wide of the post, resulting in groans around Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea’s only consolation perhaps is that away goals don’t carry extra weight anymore as it targets an unlikely comeback in the Spanish capital.