Chelsea have had just days to try to recover from the trauma of elimination from the Champions League in the most heartbreaking manner as they face Crystal Place on Sunday in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, writes Paul Lagan.
Quite how they will do that will be down to head coach Thomas Tuchel, his backroom medical staff and the mental fortitude of the players selected.
Already 3-1 down from the 1st leg at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea produced a remarkable performance to not only wipe out the two-goal deficit but to take a 3-0 stranglehold lead at the Bernabeu with strikes from Mason Mount, Toni Rudiger and Timo Werner.
They were 10 minutes from their greatest ever European comeback victory and a semi-final berth.
But a single lapse of concentration cost them dear, and substitute Rodrygo nipped in to score for the Spanish side and levelled the tie overall.
Chelsea were by far the better side but six minutes in extra-time, the fatal blow came from the head of Karim Benzema and Chelsea were 5-4 down on aggregate.
Despite that, chances fell to Christian Pulisic and with the last kick of the game by Jorginho, who dragged a potential equaliser wide.
Elite professional footballers won’t be consoled by the thought that they played well. They won’t recall the fact they beat the 13 times champions of Europe 3-2 in their own back yard.
They will be thinking of the VAR decision that robbed them of a Marcos Alonso goal. They will be holding their heads in astonishment recalling the save by ex-Chelsea stopper Thibaut Courtois to deny Kai Havertz a downward header that could have put them 4-0 up.
They will discuss among themselves why Tuchel did not bring on fresh legs when 3-0 up and cancel out Madrid’s youthful replacements who gave them the energy and impetus to claw the match back from the precipice.
In short, they will still be hurting, frustrated and probably feeling confused when they walk out the Wembley tunnel to take on Patrick Vieira’s revitalised Eagles.
Yet pragmatic Tuchel admitted they made mistakes and got punished.
He said: “We are very disappointed and very proud at the same time.
“We played a fantastic match. We deserved what we had. We scored four goals, we had big chances to score more. We were unlucky. We got beaten by pure individual quality and offensive conversion.
“We had two mistakes after ball wins, the most crucial moments in games against Real Madrid.
“We deserved to go through after this performance, but it was not meant to be. You need luck in games like this and it was not on our side.
They did not create a lot at Stamford Bridge [in the first leg], but they took every half chance.
“You have to reduce your mistakes and we could not reduce it to an absolute minimum over the two legs. But there are no regrets. These are the kind of defeats you can take with pride and accept as a sportsman.
“The players lived up to the plan in a very different way than we did against Brentford [in the league] and in the first leg. We were never shy of making the point that the most important thing is how we live up to a tactic, and how lively we play in a structure. The credit goes to the players.
“We were very disciplined on the ball, and very active off the ball. We showed a lot of courage, and from there we showed the quality. It was the right way to do it.
“I am very happy. This is the way to go forward. If we have this kind of effort we are a special team, and if not we can lose against anybody.
“They showed a lot of character. We can be very proud.”
Chelsea women are also in FA Cup semi-final action on Sunday.
But not for them, the salubrious Wembley venue. They were drawn to face Arsenal at the north London side’s Meadow Park – home of Boreham Wood FC.
Head coach Emma Hayes will have a team in mind, but is still assessing the fitness and readiness of many of her stellar players who have just jetted back from all corners of the globe after international duty.
Photo: Chelsea’s Timo Werner (centre left) scores their sides third goal of the game during the UEFA Champions League quarter final, second leg match at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, Madrid on Tuesday night. Picture: PA