Game 45/60: Chelsea vs West Brom
First losses under a manager are often blown out of proportion, especially at Chelsea and if said head coach has enjoyed a prolonged unbeaten start, longer than the usual three or four games known as the ‘honeymoon period’. Oftentimes these losses don’t come to a far superior team where people go away and say, ‘Well it was always going to be tough to carry it on I suppose’. No, these losses come in a cruelly specific manner, by the fact they are often extremely damning and benefit a team struggling so badly that people had virtually added three points to the league table before the game even began. The old saying about there being no tough games in the league is often correct, but with this sort of opponent, it is usually disregarded as media fanfare and hopeful speculation of a rare slip up for the dominant sides.
So, while a visit from Big Sam’s West Brom may have seemed a simple fixture to navigate, the invisible time bomb counting down to that first horror show for an unsuspecting victim at the helm of a new club was there in the background, biding its time until the best moment to strike. The Baggies had already disrupted the Blues earlier in the season, with one of the most memorable early games for them, a 3-3 draw at the Hawthorns in which Lampard’s side were shell shocked in the first 25 minutes. This, while not entirely the opposite, did not follow the same script, though it had a far worse outcome. For all the plaudits of Tuchel’s transformation of Chelsea’s defence, this anomaly (and it was just that when looking ahead to other results), was almost inexplicable. Maybe it was the fact an international break had dented the team camaraderie developed in the first couple of months. Maybe it was an underestimation of a seemingly woeful opponent, given their league position. Or maybe, and this is just as likely as the other options, Tuchel got it wrong.
Strange as it may have sounded at the time to someone who had so far been nigh on perfect, nobody can go without mistakes. It’s just a shame for the German that his pent up errors all spilled out at once. While Chelsea did take the lead from a Pulisic goal, following up on a rebound off the post, the damage was almost certainly done two minutes later, when Thiago Silva received a second yellow card for an incredibly contentious foul whereby he attempted to block a shot, facing away from the attacker, only for the trailing leg to catch Yokuslu. This tipped the game on its head as not only were the home side a man down, they now also felt they were victims of injustice and evidently this played on their minds. From that point onwards, West Brom, against all the odds, ran riot.
Pereira scored not once but twice in additional time of the first half, the first a route one pass from Johnstone finding the striker who cleverly chipped Mendy and the second a fake shot which fooled three defenders before he slotted calmly into the bottom corner. A third was added by Robinson in a wonderfully slick move, finished off with a perfect strike into the top corner. The fourth came 5 minutes after that, a wide array of defensive errors all round, capitalised on by Diagne. Mount did get one back but the comeback never looked likely, despite his tap in with 20 minutes to go, and West Brom ensured that wasn’t to be the case as a fifth and final goal in the 91st minute from Robinson rounded off a miserable day at the office for Tuchel and his team.
Astonishingly, having conceded only two goals in his first 14 games, and on a run of 7 consecutive clean sheets, five were put past the German head coach’s side. Across the season, Chelsea conceded more goals to West Brom, with 8 against them, than to any other side – and they had a Champions League quarter final tie up next.
Game 45/60: Chelsea 2-5 West Brom
Game 46/60: Porto vs Chelsea
Chelsea had been handed, arguably, the easiest opponent of all those remaining in Porto, but considering the Portugese side had knocked out Juventus in the previous round, expectations could not afford to be lowered, else a West Brom 2.0 risked occurring. Owing to travel restrictions, both legs were to be played in Seville, with Chelsea the ‘away’ side for the first leg. Porto, for the first 20 minutes or so, looked the more potent attacking threat, and while they had limited chances, their passes looked crisper, their players more energetic and their tackles more ruthless – it seemed as though Chelsea may have met their match. That was until a moment of magic in the 32nd minute from, as was so often said this season, Mason Mount, turning on the spot after a pass into feet from Jorginho, sitting Mbemba down and then going on to find the far corner with pinpoint precision.
His first goal in the Champions League was well worth the wait and as he slid off in celebration with fellow academy graduate Reece James, the look of wonder in his eyes as what had just happened gave you a sense of just how much this meant to him. As mentioned, Porto had the plurality of opportunities, including one preceding Mount’s goal where Mendy scrambled to punch a corner kick from going directly into the net and a Pepe header which the Frenchman dealt with comfortably. Conceicao’s side did look very close to scoring at times, with chances early in the second half failing to be capitalised on. A faint penalty claim by the so-called ‘home’ side was waved away and rightfully so due to the theatrical manner with which Marega went to ground. Predominantly, although the goals were clearly crucial in winning the games, it was the defensive structure and resolve which dented opposition morale to such an extent which won this tie for the Blues.
Time and time again Porto attackers looked to make runs or find passes but they would find a Chelsea defender in their way, and the consistency with which that occurred is testament to the coaching Thomas Tuchel instilled in them so quickly. That said, it is goals that win you games, and to secure this first leg and in part the tie, a second goal would be invaluable. It finally came with 5 minutes to go in remarkably familiar fashion to a certain Torres goal, as miscontrol from Corona let Chilwell in, and after rounding the keeper he passed the ball into the net, rounding off the ideal Champions League night for Chelsea fans everywhere – back to winning ways, a clean sheet again and a two goal advantage heading into the second leg. There’s not much more they could’ve asked for.
Game 46/60: Porto 0-2 Chelsea
Game 47/60: Crystal Palace vs Chelsea
It was another away game at the weekend, back in the Premier League with the Blues hoping to revitalise their Top Four chances after slipping down into fifth due to the West Brom defeat. Crystal Palace were the opponents in question and any lingering doubts regarding how the match might play out were extinguished in forceful fashion early on. The first half was the best one played yet under Tuchel, with the intensity, energy levels and speed almost impossible to believe considering the tough European tie they had just played. Just 8 minutes in, Kai Havertz wriggled past a defender and found the far corner with a beautiful curling shot, low to the ground which passed through multiple defenders and the goalkeeper, putting Chelsea one up.
Barely two minutes later, Havertz was causing problems again and he found Pulisic who smashed the ball into the roof of the net, echoing the goal he scored at the same ground in the previous season. Havertz very nearly got one of the goals of the season as he took a magnificent touch to bring the ball under his spell, flicked it over Van Aanholt and volleyed it towards the bottom left corner, forcing Guaita to get down quickly and block the shot. Half an hour in it was Mason Mount’s turn to create a chance and from his free kick delivery Zouma rose highest to head the ball in, giving Chelsea a 3-0 advantage with barely a third of the game played. There could’ve been even more for the Blues in the first half had it not been for the Eagles’ goalkeeper who got down low to block Mount’s shot and cleared a bouncing ball with another Zouma header having been blocked on the line by the aforementioned Patrick Van Aanholt.
Frustratingly for Chelsea, the one time they did let their guard down in the second half, Palace took full advantage, with Benteke heading home a Schlupp cross, evading his marker in Ben Chilwell and scoring with the home side’s one and only shot of the game. Havertz would’ve been disappointed not to get a hat trick in the end, as he took a one on one shot early, making it easy for the goalkeeper, but Chelsea did get a fourth when a deflected Reece James cross was powerfully fired in at the back post by Christian Pulisic. The win didn’t bring Chelsea any higher, but it ensured pressure remained on the teams above them and, as far Tuchel was concerned, if all they could do was keep on winning then they would do just that.
Game 47/60: Crystal Palace 1-4 Chelsea
Game 48/60: Chelsea vs Porto
In all honesty, when you move teams hundreds of miles from their actual home stadiums, play in the same place twice in the space of a week, with the now ‘away’ side two goals down and with little motivation after the defensive resilience off the opposition the week before, I’m not sure you can ever expect an open, exciting, attacking game. I would build up this game hugely as decisive in Chelsea’s ultimate run to glory but it seems futile to do so given the, well, inaction that occurred across 90 minutes in Seville. That’s not to say there were no standout performers – Kante was again formidable defensively but, with such a world class player, it hardly seems worth mentioning much of the time. The game is best summed up when looking at statistics, which is ironic given I advocate for words often being needed to fully explain such numbers.
However, when both sides create a total of 3 shots on target between them, mainly due to a lack of conversion from attackers when in promising positions, it is clear why this game cannot be spoken about in dramatic fashion. Of course, there were some chances, such as for Mount, whose shot was deflected over the bar, and Corona who almost punished Mendy’s poor clearance, but nothing of genuine worry for the opposition, particularly in the first half. The most telling statistic was that of the number of fouls on Christian Pulisic, with the American being brought to ground on 11 occasions, the most in any match in the Champions League throughout the season.
Chelsea looked in control for virtually the entire game, up until the final minute of injury time when an absolutely exquisite Taremi bicycle kick shot past Mendy, giving Porto a glimmer of hope, though thankfully for the Blues it was too late by that point. Still, the quality of the strike was something to behold, as Chelsea fans could do just one minute later, the referee having blown the full time whistle, sending the Blues through to a Champions League semi final – a phenomenal achievement for Tuchel and his team, with the journey not done yet.
Game 48/60: Chelsea 0-1 Porto
(Aggregate: Chelsea 2-1 Porto)
Game 49/60: Chelsea vs Manchester City
Speaking of semi finals, the Blues were in action against a formidable opponent in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City for a place in the much coveted FA Cup Final. With the Citizens flying high in the Premier League and also into the semi finals of the Champions League themselves, this was a huge game, especially with regards to winning a trophy in his first season for Tuchel, as well as going for the quadruple for Guardiola. Both managers opted to continue playing their cup goalkeepers in Kepa and Steffen respectively, with the rationale being a second choice deserves to know they will start in at least some games. It was a bright start from the Blues as they looked sharper than their Manchester opponents and they thought they’d taken an early lead when Werner sprinted up the pitch and set Ziyech up for a tap in, but the flag went up for a relatively obvious offside on the former, as had become so, so familiar for Timo Werner this season.
City’s first shot came from Jesus but his attempted curler arrived into the grateful grasp of Kepa, not troubling the Spaniard at all, as would be the case for the rest of the afternoon. At the other end, it was the two full backs combining as a pearler of a cross from Reece James on the right hand side fell to Chilwell who totally mistimed his volley and the ball rolled to the side of the net. Chelsea kept pushing though, and though chances were limited for the rest of the first half, they went in at the break looking the more likely to score. 10 minutes into the second half, however, the Blues did create a brilliant chance to score as Mount played Werner in behind and he, like in the first half, squared it to Ziyech who quite literally had an open goal with Steffen nowhere to be seen, meaning it was one of the easiest goals the Moroccan would ever score, but also one of the most important too.
Ziyech had another brilliant opportunity just minutes later but in a one on one it was Steffen that came out on top this time, keeping his side in the game. City’s best chance to take advantage of being kept in the semi final came when Rodri headed back across goal from a corner, but Dias’ header flew over the bar, again leaving Kepa untested. Werner went on a long sprint up the pitch but the shot at the end of the run was disappointingly tame, giving Steffen plenty of time to get to ground and prevent the ball from rolling past him. Timo needn’t have been worried though, as despite a sudden swirl of chances from Foden, Jesus and Sterling, none of them threatened Kepa in the Chelsea net and, although Pulisic thought he had wrapped it up in injury time, only for the goal to be disallowed, Mike Dean did eventually blow the full time whistle, much to Thomas Tuchel’s delight.
He had beaten one of the world’s top coaches, was in an FA Cup Final just three months after taking charge and had a Champions League semi final tie to look forward to as well. Nothing could go wrong now, right?
Game 49/60: Chelsea 1-0 Manchester City
Game 50/60: Chelsea vs Brighton
Wrong. Literally everything imaginable, in the space of 24 hours could and did go monumentally wrong, not only at Chelsea, not only in England, but in the world of football. It began as murmurs on the day after the semi final victory, with reports in newspapers suggesting an imminent announcement of a so-called ‘European Super League’. Of course by now everyone knows the details and make up of this competition, but at the time the details were new, and they were horrifying. As was said so many times, this ‘closed shop’ style league removed any sort of competitiveness, meant grass roots football would be totally abandoned and any sort of funding for lesser clubs in the football league would be diverted instead to the ‘Big Six’, as part of their plan to americanise the game in Europe. The ringleaders were said to be the Real Madrid and Juventus chairmen, Florentino Perez and Andrea Agnelli.
It was the speed with which these reports came out that shocked most – just 12 hours after the story was initially reported, a joint statement from each of the 12 ‘founding clubs’ was released, confirming their intention to break away. Perhaps more astonishing was the tsunami wave of backlash which followed. Organisations, from FIFA, to the FA, to the PFA condemned the move in its entirety, threatening bans from playing for their country for players to huge fines and even potential expulsion from their domestic leagues. Looking back now it seems crazy that this only lasted for two or three days in total – at the time it felt like a lifetime. For Chelsea, it appeared their hard work in getting to an FA Cup final and Champions League semi final had been totally undone, with reports of bans from both competitions being spread like wildfire across social media.
Then, the most damning backlash of all came: the fans. Liverpool fans travelled to Elland Road on Monday night to protest against their club’s participation, although many were unhappy with the ownership prior to this scandal anyway. For Chelsea supporters, it felt like much more of a betrayal, with Abramovich so often being unique in his lack of involvement with the rest of the ‘Big Six’. Something, somehow, had to stop this from happening. And so, with Chelsea playing on Tuesday night, a protest was planned outside Stamford Bridge. What followed was nothing short of incredible. A crowd of thousands gathered outside the entrance, chanting their condemnation of not only the competition itself but also those who thought the idea up. One fan summed it up best with his sign reading: ‘We want our cold nights in Stoke’. It is that desire for the traditionality of English football to continue that led to the fan anger at the announcement.
The sheer volume of people led to a delay to the match and even an appearance from Petr Cech to try to get the fans to allow the team bus in. Then, after an hour and a half of protesting, the moment came. Multiple journalists suddenly tweeted that sources were informing them of Chelsea’s intention to ‘prepare paperwork and documentation’’ to withdraw from the European Super League. As news filtered through the crowd, the response was nothing short of absolute jubilation – only matched by the celebrations after winning a title, or even the Champions League. This was a victory for the working class fans against the few billionaires seeking to disrupt a sport which millions and millions of people not only enjoy but rely on.
It seemed arbitrary to play a game of football later that night. It was of course an important fixture for the Blues with regards to the Top Four race but, considering everything which had happened before it, the result and the consequences of it appeared largely irrelevant. Brighton were the opponents and while Chelsea would’ve felt prior to the game they ought to be winning it, they would have been grateful to get away with just one point after how the game turned out and, besides, the point still managed to bring them back into the Top Four places anyway as other results fell kindly for them. It’s probable that the team were still focused on the antics of the European Super League, especially as their international careers appeared to be at stake, and it showed on the night.
Chances for Welbeck and Lallana were not taken as Chelsea attempted to play out from the back before losing the ball, something that happened several times. There were very few chances for the Blues themselves, bar an early one from Havertz but, as mentioned, it felt as though there were more important things at stake. A late second yellow for Ben White went mostly under the radar and it felt quite apt that on a night when fans expressed their desire to not only play with ‘elite’ clubs, one further down the table showed exactly why they were right. Other clubs also confirmed their withdrawal of support and, just like that, as quickly as it was formed, it fell apart, all thanks to the fans – who were never to be underappreciated ever again.
Game 50/60: Chelsea 0-0 Brighton
Game 51/60: West Ham vs Chelsea
Luckily for Thomas Tuchel, despite his side only managing a draw, they were propelled into a Top Four place after West Ham slipped up to Newcastle, losing 3-2 the weekend before. It was the Hammers who were the opponents for the Blues next, at the London Stadium, and it truly was incredible to see the difference in quality from a West Ham side who, just a few months earlier, were only just about surviving relegation on the final day. This would be a pivotal match with regards to Chelsea’s Top Four hopes – with a win they’d cement their position in the all important places, but lose however, and the tide could turn rapidly. There was a sparse opening half an hour, with neither side really taking hold of the game by the scruff of the net, even with one or two chances for the likes of Werner and Fredericks.
It was another game that would go on to be defined by a resilient Chelsea performance in the end, rather than a ruthless attacking one but, as is needed to get a victory, the Blues did manage to convert one opportunity, and it came at the perfect time, just before the interval. Werner turned on the spot well and held up the ball despite Ogbonna attempting to muscle him off the ball, before he laid it off to Pulisic who then sent Chilwell off on a run down the line. The left back delivered a low cross into the box which somehow evaded every West Ham defender, instead making its way to the man who started the move in Timo Werner, and he side footed it past Fabianski, giving Chelsea a narrowly deserved lead at half time. The German had a brilliant chance to double his goal tally for the day when a speculative Mount long shot troubled Fabianski and the resulting rebound was sent wide by the striker, much to the frustration of Tuchel.
Mount was, as was so often the case, his side’s best player by some distance and he consistently troubled the opposition’s defence, forcing another save from the keeper midway through the second half. The main moment of controversy in the game, (and let’s be honest there’s always one with VAR involved), came with 10 minutes to go, when an attempted clearance from Balbuena saw his foot catch Chilwell’s leg in the follow through. While seemingly accidental, a check on the monitor by the referee led to a dismissal on account of violent conduct, something which David Moyes did not refrain from complaining about and rightfully so.
Had his side remained with all 11 players on the pitch however, it would be hard to make a case that they would’ve found an equaliser. They were limited to just two shots on target in the 90 minutes and never really tested Mendy, giving the Blues a huge victory in the race for the Champions League places, with just four league games remaining.
Game 51/60: West Ham 0-1 Chelsea
Game 52/60: Real Madrid vs Chelsea
Before their remaining domestic games, there was another small matter for Chelsea to attend to – a Champions League semi final against the most successful team in the competition’s history, Real Madrid. While not in quite as electrifying form as they were when Ronaldo was still with them, the Spanish side were still a force to be reckoned with, fighting for the La Liga title with both Barcelona and their city rivals Atletico Madrid, whom Chelsea had knocked out two rounds before. It was a first leg away in Madrid, although it didn’t quite live up to the expectations that many players may have had in their minds when they were told they were heading for the Galactico’s stadium. Rather than play at the Bernabeu, the match was held at the side’s training ground stadium, due to renovation works taking place at the famous old stadium in the city.
If anything, that seemed to perturb the home side more than the visitors, with the first 20 minutes being a Chelsea onslaught which really ought to have seen the Blues put themselves out of sight early on. Zidane’s side appeared to be all over the place defensively, particularly Marcelo (who conveniently had election duty for the second leg), and they almost had the tie taken away from them before they could snap themselves back into action. Courtois produced an amazing save or Werner missed an incredible opportunity ten minutes in, depending on who you ask, as the German’s shot following Pulisic heading back across goal was not put in the back of the net. The American winger was clearly frustrated he didn’t go for goal himself as, just 4 minutes later, a ball over the top from Rudiger was taken down sublimely, before he rounded the goalkeeper and fired a shot into the roof of the net, giving Chelsea a deserved lead.
The main threat from the home side only really came from Benzema, who hit the post midway through the first half from a distance so far out it seemed ridiculous he would even consider shooting. It was the Frenchman who got the equaliser in the 29th minute, when Chelsea failed to clear a free kick delivery and the ball eventually fell for Benzema who took one touch with his head, swivelled on the spot and lashed an unstoppable volley past Mendy, leaving Werner and the rest of his teammates reflecting on his missed opportunity. Strangely, the second half contrasted the first significantly, with a much slower, more controlled game – suiting Real Madrid far more than the fast-paced breaks of the initial half an hour.
Zidane’s team did try to push for a winner in the final quarter of the game but the defensive performance, even from the Chelsea attackers, including multiple blocks and ‘bodies on the line’ prevented the home team from having more than the one shot on target that led to their goal. In fairness, Madrid’s defence was also much more stable than it seemed to be at first, although Tuchel’s side had far less necessity to push for a winner, given they had already secured the vital away goal and were perfectly happy to take a 1-1 draw back to Stamford Bridge for the second leg next week. That ended up being exactly what they did, with the clock eventually reaching 90 minutes and, while not the classic it threatened to be early on, the result was a fair one in the end, given the overall performance from either side.
Game 52/60: Real Madrid 1-1 Chelsea
Games Played: 8
Games Won: 4
Games Drawn: 2
Games Lost: 2
Month in three words: Super League Shenanigans.
Written by Noah Robson (@noahr24_)
Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)
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