Chelsea 2020/21 Revisited: May 2021 part 1

After a season of nearly unprecedented ups and downs, with matches played in empty stadiums against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the month of May was the embodiment of Chelsea’s 2020/21 season. The highest of highs punctuated by the most crushing of lows, the Blues of West London ended their season as European Champions for the second time in their history.

Ben Chilwell hugging Eden Hazard after the first tie Vs Real Madrid(Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Ben Chilwell hugging Eden Hazard after the first tie Vs Real Madrid(Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Game 53/60: Chelsea vs Fulham

After the heights of a Champions League semi final, there was quite an anti climax when fans realised the next game was a home league fixture against Fulham. Yes, they were rivals but, realistically, the Cottagers were now just one or two games away from relegation and seemed down and out. It wasn’t the most exciting performance from the home side, and if anything Fulham probably deserved at least one goal from the game but, in a season of ‘if onlys’ for Scott Parker’s side, this was just another one to add to the very long list. That said, an early chance for Fulham, as Robinson fired a strike towards goal which Mendy had to tip over the crossbar, showed Tuchel that they weren’t just playing for pride.

The early scare was clearly a catalyst for Chelsea to realise this was a huge game in respect to the Top Four race, even if the opponent made it feel more of a pre-season friendly. Just 5 minutes after that chance, Chelsea took the lead in an exquisite move, whereby Thiago Silva played a perfect ball over the Fulham defence which Mason Mount brought down with an absolutely incredible first touch, before playing a brilliant through ball into Havertz who slotted it past the keeper. The German thought he’d scored again soon after following another excellent pass from Mount but he’d gone too early and the offside flag was raised.

Fulham did push back however, with Lookman forcing a stop from Mendy and Ola Aina’s deflected strike just before half time needing a brilliant save from the goalkeeper. Between those two chances, there was a chance for Ziyech to make it two, which he really should have done after Werner squared the ball into the middle but the Moroccan could only fire it into the gloves of Areola. The second goal did come soon after the break though, when Chilwell played a cross field ball to Havertz who, after a one-two with Werner, coolly slotted home to double Chelsea’s lead.

The second half was far more quiet in terms of chances as the game was killed off early on, but if anything that was more desirable for the home side who ended up securing a professional win when it mattered to remain in the Top Four places, with some tough fixtures still to come in the final few games of the league campaign.

Game 53/60: Chelsea 2-0 Fulham

Game 54/60: Chelsea vs Real Madrid

Before the Top Four places could be settled however, there was perhaps Chelsea’s biggest game for nearly 7 years as they faced Real Madrid in the second leg of their European semi final tie. A 1-1 draw in the first leg was by no means a bad result whatsoever, but it did leave things hanging in the balance slightly, even if the Blues were going through as it stood at the start of the game on account of away goals. Some speculative long shots from two Germans for either side, Kroos and Rudiger, made the opposing goalkeepers work, though nothing beyond what would be expected of them. Madrid started far better than they had done in the first leg, looking much more controlled in possession compared to the defensive disaster they endured in the first 20 minutes a week before.

Chelsea thought they had undone said defence when Chilwell delivered a cross right into the feet of Timo Werner who tapped the ball past Courtois but the flag went up almost instantly and much to fans’ frustration, the German had been caught offside again. In an otherwise placid opening 26 minutes, the best chance came from Karim Benzema as he turned swiftly on the spot before launching a rocket of a shot that Mendy got down incredibly well to tip past the post – while it may not have seemed like it at the time, this was perhaps the most crucial moment of the entire Champions League campaign as, had the ball found the bottom corner, it would’ve been hard to see the Blues fight back against such a tough defence. As it turned out though, just 2 minutes after the save Kante played Kai Havertz in one on one with Courtois and he chipped the keeper, only to see his effort hit the crossbar.

Thankfully, Werner was alert to the follow up and scored the easiest goal he ever will in his career, a header from, quite literally, a yard out, but he and every other Chelsea player didn’t care as they had taken the lead both on the night and on aggregate. The work was nowhere near done for the home side though as Mendy made yet another match-winning save, tipping Benzema’s close range header over the bar with a spectacular acrobatic stop. As the referee blew for half time, Chelsea had the lead and, although Madrid had created more of the chances, the Blues’ defence had stood strong, in particular the goalkeeper, but with 45 more minutes still to come, the tie undeniably remained in the balance. Ironically, in the second half it was Chelsea who wasted their opportunities far more than their Spanish counterparts and this made for a very nervy end to the game in which all you could think about was all the missed chances.

The first of these came early on after the interval when a Havertz header cannoned off the bar, then just 4 minutes later Thiago Silva’s aerial effort fizzed over the top of the net. Even then the action didn’t slow down as an excellent Mason Mount run led to him making it past the Madrid back line but he couldn’t keep his shot down and it was another chance gone begging for Tuchel’s team. For the fourth chance in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, it was again Kai Havertz who found himself face to face with Courtois, not a defender in sight, but the Belgian keeper made himself big and denied the 21-year-old once more. The chances didn’t stop coming for the West London side however, as this time a superb Werner run from his own penalty area to the opposition’s one led to him passing off to Kante who himself couldn’t finish the game off either.

It really was a case of quantity over quality for Chelsea and a Thiago Silva header flashing wide of the post, as well as a dangerous Pulisic cross that nobody could quite get on the end of, made many think there was going to be a cruel twist for the home side late on as the clocked ticked on to the 85th minute. Finally though, after innumerable wasted opportunities, the everpresent N’Golo Kante stole the ball from Nacho before setting Pulisic off and the American faked a shot to lure Courtois out of his goal, then cut it back for Mason Mount arriving in the box and the young English midfielder stuck his leg out to make contact and send Chelsea into the Champions League final.

Only one more chance then occurred as Ziyech was pulled down in a blindingly obvious penalty but the referee, seemingly to spare Zidane’s side any more embarrassment, blew the full time whistle instead, capping an absolutely breathtaking Thomas Tuchel tactical masterclass. The one negative of the entire evening was that fans were not able to witness it live in the flesh and be the twelfth man that they undoubtedly would’ve been, but with supporters set to return to grounds in just a couple of weeks time, it wouldn’t be long before Blues’ fans could show their appreciation for an unprecedented journey to the biggest game in club football.

Game 54/60: Chelsea 2-0 Real Madrid
(Aggregate: Chelsea 3-1 Real Madrid)

Game 55/60: Manchester City vs Chelsea

The next opponent was, if anything, even tougher in the form of Manchester City, but after the high of making a European cup final, it appeared Thomas Tuchel’s men feared absolutely nobody, even a team who, with a win, would secure the Premier League title. This was showcased by the dominant start the Blues made in Manchester, with the customary Timo Werner offside goal arriving this time in the 32nd minute, following a deflected Marcos Alonso cross. Just a minute later, Gilmour played an excellent ball through to Werner but Laporte’s strength was ultimately too much and the German’s shot curled wide of the post. The Blues kept pushing but it was the would-be Champions who took the lead after a failed Christensen clearance (which ended up being a muscle injury, forcing him off), meant Jesus had plenty of space to run into the box, where he picked out Aguero, although the Argentinian scuffed his shot and it was Sterling, arriving late, who ended up stealing his thunder and knocking the ball past Mendy.

Things went from bad to worse for Chelsea just 2 minutes later as, in added time of the first half, Gilmour was adjudged to have brought down Jesus in the box and Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot. It seemed the game would be over before the break but, in an unbelievable moment, Aguero attempted a panenka which Edouard Mendy read like a book and comfortably caught the failed spot kick. Martin Tyler questioned whether he would live to regret the audacious attempt and, not to spoil anything but, he definitely would. The Blues started the second half well, with chances for Werner and Pulisic going amiss, but they did get the equaliser when some well-worked build up play led to Ziyech receiving the ball on the edge of the box, and after one touch he placed a perfect shot into the bottom corner, leaving Ederson no chance and getting his side back on level terms.

Both sides were then pushing for a winner as counter attacks proved to be the most likely way of scoring; Werner couldn’t get on the end of a Pulisic block after a quick break, Jesus was crowded out following a long carry with the ball and Foden’s shot went wide. In that time, the visitors thought they’d gone ahead not once, but twice, as Werner rounded Ederson, only for the flag to go up as he passed the ball into an empty net, and two minutes later Hudson-Odoi got on the end of a Reece James cross but was also denied by the linesman. A debatable penalty call for Man City then came, as Zouma clumsily attempted to force Sterling wide of the goal, resulting in the winger going to ground, but the referee decided there wasn’t enough contact and Chelsea lived to fight another day.

They weren’t going to wait around for tomorrow however, as in the 92nd minute, Hudson-Odoi played a smart ball into Werner, who cut the ball back to Alonso and the Spaniard clipped the ball up and over Ederson to win the game for Chelsea in spectacular fashion. After such a big midweek victory, this was a monumental victory for the Blues as they had ruined City’s title party and moved into third place in the league. As Tuchel went off onto the pitch to congratulate his players, a despondent looking Guardiola trudged past and he must’ve been wondering how he was to defeat a manager in a Champions League final who had out played him twice in just four weeks.

Game 55/60: Manchester City 1-2 Chelsea
Another superb display from Chelsea's captain Cesar Azpilicueta, he registered an assist Vs Manchester City. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Another superb display from Chelsea’s captain Cesar Azpilicueta, he registered an assist Vs Manchester City. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Game 56/60: Chelsea vs Arsenal

Following on from two huge wins against two of the most difficult opponents to play in Europe, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Chelsea’s next game, against a team in 9th place in the Premier League, at home, would be a walk in the park. Of course, the players would be slightly tired having put strenuous effort in over the past week, but with an opponent sitting mid table at this stage of the season, and Chelsea being far more desperate for the three points to remain in good stead for the Top Four, it seems logical that the home side should easily come out on top. All of that is absolutely true, but there is one crucial component of this context which is missing that flips it entirely on its head. The team in question was Arsenal. And somehow, against all the odds, the Gunners seem to save their best performances for the games against their London rivals, in particular Chelsea.

They had beaten the Blues once earlier in the season when they were on a very poor run of form up until that Boxing Day game, and while their results had picked up slightly since then, they were by no means looking set for a European finish, or even coming close. Therefore, it appeared to be the perfect storm – an Arsenal side with nothing to play for against city rivals, and a Chelsea side with, well, everything to play for still. At first, it appeared as though such a result would not happen, as Havertz found himself one on one with Leno just 11 minutes in, but the German skied his effort over the bar and from then on the outcome seemed inevitable.

It’s not that Arteta’s side played particularly well, or that they dug in deep defensively, although there were some impressive tackles and defensive structure to frustrate the home side, but more so that Chelsea appeared to simply run out of ideas, particularly after the 16th minute. I say the 16th minute, because it was the moment when Arsenal took the lead, though again, not through their own clever build up, or smart pass, but rather through a comedy of errors that led to Smith-Rowe tapping the ball into an empty net. It began when Jorginho played a shocker of a backpass to Kepa, in the direction of the goal, which was not ideal considering the keeper was 10 yards to the right of it at the time, attempting to make it easier for the Italian to play the pass.

Instead, the midfielder opted for a blind backpass, which Kepa somehow managed to scramble off the line (though, had Arsenal not then scored, it would’ve been an indirect free kick as the goalkeeper handled the ball from a backpass).The save only fell to Aubameyang however, and he passed into the aforementioned Smith-Rowe whose shot, while not the cleanest strike, just about made its way into the net off of the post, rounding off a calamitous sequence of events from Thomas Tuchel’s side. Mount thought he’d got an equaliser when his volley looked destined to nestle in the back of the net, until it appeared Pablo Mari handled the ball when blocking the shot, though the claims were waved away by both the referee and the VAR.

Mount had two more shots in the first half, one of which was saved well by Leno and the second blocked again, this time by Elneney, but in truth they were never clear-cut opportunities. A VAR check took away a Pulisic equaliser as he was evidently miles offside when he chested in a teammates’ header from a corner and it seemed that would be that for the Blues. That was until a Zouma header in the 90th minute crashed off the crossbar, straight into the path of Olivier Giroud and it seemed that fate had decided the chance should fall to him, as the ball came back into his direction. Fate clearly hadn’t accounted for the fact Giroud may not actually score the chance however, and his volley also came back off the crossbar in a rather apt metaphor for how the game had gone for Chelsea – close but ultimately undone by their own doing.

Game 56/60: Chelsea 0-1 Arsenal

Game 57/60: Chelsea vs Leicester City

A few days later, and with the Arsenal result firmly put behind them, Chelsea had the small matter of an FA Cup Final to attend to. The opponents were Leicester City, rivals in the Top Four race too, and while it was not to be an easy game, the Blues were the favourites, though it was on a knife edge. Ordinarily, for such a big game in the season, with it being a chance to win silverware and all, I might try to build up anticipation here and act as if the result has been forgotten but, in truth, it is futile to do so.

So I’ll begin at the end instead: Leicester beat Chelsea to win the FA Cup. It was the fairytale story once again and, apart from Chelsea fans, everyone had wanted them to do it, so with the pre-match coverage from Gary Lineker effectively a Foxes fanfare show, there was a sense of a predestined result in the air, before a ball had even been kicked. It was a relatively quiet start to the final, as it often is with neither side wanting to push too many forwards out of fear of conceding the opening goal. Both teams had half chances, like Vardy seeing a shot blocked by Reece James and Mount forcing a corner after his shot was deflected, but it felt like the sort of game that would be decided by just a single goal.

At half time, that goal was yet to arrive, and the game remained level-pegging, with it being more a case of two managers attempting to tactically outwit each other rather than the players themselves underperforming. While it had been an even first 45 minutes, the second half was more contrasting in nature – Leicester looked dominant immediately after the interval and this control was capitalised upon less than 20 minutes into the half. Reece James attempted to play a long range ball, but it was deflected off of Ayoze Perez, with some suggestion of handball that ended up being pivotal in deciding not only the game but indeed the whole competition.

If ever a decision was going to be wrong though, it felt as though the subsequent goal ought to be given the exemption to the rules, simply out of respect to the pure power, skill and accuracy in the strike. Tielemans had received the ball and was moving forwards with it, as Chelsea defenders backed off more and more, until the Belgian midfielder let fly from 25 yards out and watched as his shot nestled in the top left corner, out of reach for Kepa, before he went off to celebrate with Leicester City fans who, along with their Chelsea counterparts, had been allowed into Wembley Stadium, and that certainly made the game far more exciting than it otherwise may have felt. Regardless of who you support, the noise from the Foxes’ fans was electrifying and a reminder of the need to bring supporters back as soon as possible.

Neither side threatened particularly dangerously for some time after that, with the next big chance coming in the 78th minute when Chilwell’s header was tipped past the post by Schmeichel in a brilliant reaction save. The Dane wasn’t done yet though, with his best save still to come just under 10 minutes later, when Mount’s half volley was fizzed towards the far corner with such power that fans already appeared to celebrate, but a fingertip stop again pushed the effort wide of the goal, seemingly cementing the result in place. There was still one final bit of drama to come from Wembley, in the form of perhaps one of the biggest emotional rollercoasters in FA Cup Final history. In the final minute of normal time, the Blues were throwing everything at it, and there was one last long ball over the top from Thiago Silva, in the direction of former Fox Ben Chilwell making a darting run towards the back post.

The left back came sprinting in and made contact with the ball, and following a momentary pinball in the six yard box, it eventually went in off Wes Morgan, the Leicester City captain, cueing pandemonium in the Chelsea end. Chilwell and his teammates were ecstatic and went charging towards the corner to celebrate with the fans at the last minute equaliser, but then came the dreaded words over the loudspeaker: ‘VAR checking goal’. A hush fell around the stadium as the verdict was awaited. Lines were drawn, cameras were zoomed in and out until finally, after the most tense 30 seconds of nail biting judgements, Chiwell was ruled to have been offside and the goal ruled out. The celebrations from Leicester fans were mirror images of the Chelsea ones, despite it not even being a goal for their side – VAR supporters will point to that as extra drama and one of the benefits of the system, but it was hard to convince Chelsea fans of that at the time.

It was Leicester’s day and probably deservedly so considering the defensive performance they had put in, along with the stunner of a goal to win it for them. For Chelsea though, within the space of a week, they had gone from an almost unmatched high to a despairing low in a sign of just how quickly things can change in football.

Game 57/60: Chelsea 0-1 Leicester City
Footballers have feelings. LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 15: Reece James of Chelsea looks dejected following their side's defeat in The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Chelsea and Leicester City at Wembley Stadium on May 15, 2021 in London, England. A limited number of around 21,000 fans, subject to a negative lateral flow test, will be allowed inside Wembley Stadium to watch this year's FA Cup Final as part of a pilot event to trial the return of large crowds to UK venues. (Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth - Pool/Getty Images)
Footballers have feelings. LONDON, ENGLAND – MAY 15: Reece James of Chelsea looks dejected following their side’s defeat in The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Chelsea and Leicester City at Wembley Stadium on May 15, 2021 in London, England. A limited number of around 21,000 fans, subject to a negative lateral flow test, will be allowed inside Wembley Stadium to watch this year’s FA Cup Final as part of a pilot event to trial the return of large crowds to UK venues. (Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth – Pool/Getty Images)

Game 58/60: Chelsea vs Leicester City

One of the oddities of the FA Cup Final coming before the end of the league season was that it gave the chance for Chelsea to get their revenge on Brendan Rodgers’ side almost immediately, this time in the league. With both sides gunning it out for a Top Four place, it could be argued that this was in fact the more important game, given the potential prize money at stake, and the allure of playing in Europe’s elite club competition, but then again there is nothing quite like silverware, regardless of the funds involved. It was set to be a spicy affair, after a video emerged on social media of Amartey throwing the Chelsea badge pennant, exchanged between captains at the start of the match, over his head in an apparent disrespect to the club and the team in general.

Add to that the fact there were 8000 Chelsea fans in the stadium, and you add the ingredients for all out revenge from the Blues. In many ways, it was the polar opposite of the game on Saturday – Chelsea were dominant throughout, there was a constant stream of chances and, the most obvious difference, the home side prevailed. The first half was a barrage of Blues attacks right from the off, as Chilwell fired a shot wide just three minutes in, before Mount’s shot was sent behind by Schmeichel, who appeared to be temporarily unbeatable in the Leicester net, particularly from the Englishman.

For VAR sceptics, the first half had plenty of decisions to complain about, starting with a Timo Werner goal that was overturned due to the German being offside and then again he looked to have scored from a corner but, after he had celebrated with fans in the Matthew Harding, it was ruled out for a handball which, on further reflection looking at replays, certainly appeared to be the right call, frustrating though it seemed for fans in the stadium. Not only that, but a seemingly point-blank penalty was ignored by Mike Dean, who instead awarded a foul against Werner, despite him being kicked in the achilles and, astonishingly, VAR found no reason to go against the on field decision in yet another shambolic showing for the new technology.

If the first half could be summed up by one word in controversy, the second was undoubtedly clinicality as the Blues finally got themselves ahead. Toni Rudiger was fortunate to be the man who tapped in a failed clearance from Leicester and, while not the most flashy goal he will ever score, it set Chelsea on their way to a huge win, something that was met with incredible passion from the crowd. Not content with just the one goal lead, the home side kept pushing and got their rewards when Werner, after all his hard work in the game, was finally rewarded with a penalty kick, albeit one that would be taken by resident penalty expert Jorginho.

The Italian had returned to his favoured triple jump routine and it worked like a charm, even in such a high pressure scenario, with the Danish keeper in Schmeichel being sent the wrong way, as so many goalkeepers are in the face of the technique. Leicester did pull a goal back due to some sloppy possession on the ball by Kovacic, taken advantage of by the away side and then scored by Iheanacho, but with the home fans’ support behind them, it was never likely that Tuchel’s team would let a lead slip.

There was an especially tense moment late on when a large tussle between almost all 22 players began following a contentious foul, no doubt spurred on by chants of thousands in support of those in navy blue, and it was that aggression and fight, missing in the cup final, that allowed Chelsea to get the victory in their penultimate league game of the season, putting them in pole position to qualify for the Top Four, though they would still need three points on the final day against Villa to secure their position among the places, with Liverpool now into 4th place, above Chelsea’s opposition on goal difference, much to the Foxes’ dismay.

Game 58/60: Chelsea 2-1 Leicester City

Game 59/60: Aston Villa vs Chelsea

The final day of the season is no stranger to weird and wacky results, particularly amongst those who have nothing to play for. That was the case for Chelsea who, at Villa Park, were playing a team who mathematically could not finish any higher or any lower than their current league position. And yet, with 10,000 loyal fans back inside the stadium, there was a palpable sense of motivation whirling around the ground, pushing the home side on, just for the thrill of watching their team go for it after such a long absence. As far as Chelsea were concerned, while they could rely on other results, it would be far easier for them to simply get a win and secure their position in third place. But, of course, things are never quite that simple when it comes to Chelsea, irrelevant of who is in charge.

The Blues had, arguably, the toughest fixture out of the three teams all vying for two places. Liverpool had Crystal Palace at Anfield – a game they were by far the favourites for – and Leicester had Spurs, who were having a terrible end to the season under interim coach Ryan Mason. There were two great chances for Chelsea in the first 25 minutes – the first fell to Werner who failed to convert an Azpilicueta cross and the second to Mount who saw his volley fly far over the crossbar. Meanwhile around the grounds, Leicester had taken the lead against Spurs, courtesy of a Jamie Vardy penalty, which would mean Chelsea slipping down into fourth. Things then took a turn for the worse when Liverpool also went ahead via Mane, meaning the Blues were out of the Top Four as it stood.

As if the situation wasn’t dire enough, two minutes before half time the home side took the lead, with the former Chelsea man Bertrand Traore totally unmarked from a corner which Targett rolled along the ground to him and, while his shot wasn’t the cleanest, it looped over Mendy to make it 1-0 to Villa in a crushing blow to Chelsea’s Top Four hopes. News then began to filter through that Spurs had equalised through Harry Kane meaning that at the break, the Blues remained in fourth by the skin of their teeth, with goal difference the metric putting them above the Foxes. Following the interval, Chelsea fans couldn’t quite believe their eyes when they saw Kepa being substituted on, after Mendy had apparently injured a rib while attempting to reach the first goal, though the Spaniard didn’t really end up doing much wrong. Six minutes into the second half though, Jorginho did something very wrong as he tripped Traore to gift Villa a penalty which was converted by El Ghazi.

Moments before, Vardy had put his side back ahead meaning that once again Tuchel’s team were set to finish in the Europa League places, despite the huge effort and overhaul that had occurred during his short time at the club. In a now obligatory ceremony, Werner scored an offside goal and, as the clock approached the 70th minute, all hope appeared to be lost at Chelsea’s camp. Liverpool remained 1-0 up, and this would turn to 2-0 soon all but securing their place in an astonishing comeback from the position they were in just a few months ago, and Leicester still looked in pole position to qualify for the Champions League too. There was a glimmer of hope from the Blues as Chilwell got on the end of a Pulisic cross to half the deficit, but the real moment of magic came, ironically, from one of Chelsea’s biggest rivals in Spurs.

As mentioned, final day fixtures often carry with them strange results and even stranger moments, with this game being no exception, as a corner ended up going in off of Kasper Schmeichel, meaning Chelsea were now back in the Top Four again after their temporary absence. Chilwell thought he was going to bring his side back on level terms in the 87th minute but his shot was saved spectacularly by Martinez and so it all came down to the result at the King Power Stadium. Four minutes from time, a certain Gareth Bale, who had only come on in the second half, received the ball from Kane in the box and duly smashed it home meaning they would get the joy of the Europa Conference League and Chelsea would once again qualify for the Champions League next season. Things were slightly marred for a red card by Azpilicueta late on which, after a review a few days after the game, was overturned due to, quite frankly, a ridiculous over exaggeration and dive from Jack Grealish, but that was far down the priority list by that point.

All that mattered on the final day of the Premier League at 5pm was that Tuchel had done what he had been asked to, and what had seemed a far away dream when he joined – Chelsea would play in the Champions League next season.

Game 59/60: Aston Villa 2-1 Chelsea

Written by Noah Robson (@noahr24_)

Edited by Dan Hill (@idanknow05) and Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)

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