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Benzema hat trick gives Madrid 3-1 edge over Chelsea

LONDON (AP) – Back-to-back Champions League hat tricks just reinforce the enduring value of Karim Benzema’s clinical finishing to Real Madrid.

Carlo Ancelotti sees so much more being provided by the 34-year-old forward.

“He is more of a leader every day,” the Madrid coach said after Benzema’s goals produced a 3-1 victory over Chelsea in the quarterfinals early yesterday.

This latest goal burst could end Chelsea’s title defence, barring a second-leg collapse by Madrid. Benzema now has 37 goals in 36 games in all competitions this season.

The France international is almost single-handedly keeping the Spanish giants on the path to a record-extending 14th European Cup – and a fifth for himself – and powering them to regaining the La Liga title.

The first two at Stamford Bridge were thumping headers inside three first-half minutes 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.

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema shoots on goal during the match against Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge stadium in London. PHOTO: AP

Chelsea had given itself hope of recovering when Kai Havertz reduced the deficit with a header five minutes before halftime from Jorginho’s cross.

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 in the 21st minute and Luka Modric in the 24th – was in contrast to the shortcomings of Chelsea’s number nine. 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.

Asked whether his quarterfinal was still alive, Tuchel sharply replied: “No.” It showed his frustration after his team’s hold on third place in the Premier League was loosened by a surprising 4-1 loss to Brentford last Saturday.

“We have to find our level back,” Tuchel said, “but we don’t know where it is.”