Game 47/66: Luton Town vs Chelsea
It was just a few days after the gut-wrenching disappointment at Wembley in the Carabao Cup Final against Liverpool, and the contrast between that showpiece and Chelsea’s next game couldn’t have been more stark. It was a wet Wednesday night in Luton – and of all the places for a near 20 year ownership reign to come to a close, it felt strangely apt that it would be at Kenilworth Road for a Fifth Round FA Cup fixture.
It wasn’t known until around an hour before kick off, but Roman Abramovich had announced his intention to sell the club, and evidently the recent outbreak of war in Ukraine had played a major part in his decision. At the time, nobody was quite sure how long it would take, but the promise that all proceeds would go to a charitable foundation suggested that the owner was attempting to reduce the likelihood of sanctions placed upon him in the future by portraying his generosity in public – not that it proved particularly helpful.
Still, what it all meant was that as the fans piled into Luton Town’s shoddy old stadium – in which fans walk through back gardens to get to a terrace of unreserved seating – minds were somewhat elsewhere when the game began. Perhaps that is why the players in blue appeared to be half-asleep in the opening few minutes, still thinking about what the Russian oligarch’s decision meant for them – especially someone such as Kenedy, who was making his first appearance for months having been recalled from loan.
A corner was swung in within the first two minutes, and Reece Burke got his head on the ball unmarked, and Kepa could only watch on in despair as it arced over him and into the back of the net. It took the away team some time to get back into it, but they did so in the 27th minute, and it came from an unlikely goalscorer.
Timo Werner had received the ball but it appeared he’d shown too much to the opposition defender, only for a fortunate deflection to fall straight into the path of Saul Niguez, who slotted home with a sublime finish to get his first goal for the club and brought the game back on level terms in the process too. That led to some confidence amongst Chelsea ranks, as they looked to find a goal to go in front, coming close via Saul, Kenedy and Lukaku, but each time the hosts’ backup ‘keeper stood strong and denied the efforts.
Then, against the way the momentum of the game was swinging, Luton retook the lead via a smash-and-grab goal from Harry Cornick. A ball over the top took out the entirety of the Chelsea defence, and he slotted home past Kepa, sending the home fans wild with delight. It seemed for some time that it could be a major FA Cup upset on the cards, until around midway through the second half when Timo Werner got the Blues back in the game once more.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek floated a ball over the Luton back line, which Werner took down with one touch, before finding the bottom corner with a tidy finish. 10 minutes later, and with the threat of extra time beginning to loom, Tuchel’s team managed to go in front for the first time in the game.
The aforementioned Werner found Lukaku at the back post and he had the simplest of tasks to make it 3-2 to the visitors. It might not have been convincing, but the Blues were set to progress to the quarter finals of the FA Cup – even if the headlines that night were focused far more on the ownership situation than the thriller at Kenilworth Road.
Game 47/66: Luton Town 2-3 Chelsea
Game 48/66: Burnley vs Chelsea
Prior to the Blues’ next game, which was away at Burnley in the Premier League, there was a moment of controversy which ought to be addressed in this season review. Out of support for Ukraine, there was a minute’s applause before the match, which midway through a small number of the visiting supporters hijacked, singing the name of Roman Abramovich.
Now, there was a debate to be had over whether singing his name at any point was appropriate, but it certainly did seem like the wrong decision to sing the name of a Russian oligarch in a brief period of support for the country currently being invaded by the owner’s home nation, even if his involvement was tenuous.
Nevertheless, the game did get underway after that high-profile moment, and as far as the football on the pitch was concerned, it was very much a tale of two halves. In the first one it was Burnley who had the better of the chances, most notably when Aaron Lennon fizzed a ball into the middle where January signing Wout Weghorst was waiting.
He took on the shot on the volley, connecting cleanly with the ball, and it had beaten Mendy in net, but thankfully Thiago Silva, as he so often was this season, was in the right place at the right time to clear it off the line. A dodgy pass from Kante to Rudiger allowed Lennon to snatch possession back, and after a looping cross from Westwood caused Mendy some trouble with his punch, McNeil had a golden opportunity to fire into an empty net, but somehow managed to miss the target entirely and shoot over the bar.
At half time, there were more than a few nervous looks amongst the Chelsea players, but as happened on quite a few occasions this year, it felt like a completely different team coming out after the interval. Not much over a minute into the second half, Chalobah found James in space on the right hand side. The wing back then produced some nifty footwork, faking a shot not once but twice, before finding the bottom corner on the opposite side of the goal.
Barely a few minutes later the second goal came, and this time it was from Kai Havertz, who was left in acres of space at the back post to head home a cross from Christian Pulisic. It was soon to get even better for the Blues as with 10 minutes gone in the second half they added a third to their tally, and once more Reece James was involved in this one.
Moving the ball across the pitch via Kante, the ball came to James, who this time opted to square it across goal, to where Havertz was waiting. It was an awkward finish, with the ball slightly behind him, but from so close in he really couldn’t miss, and the Blues had started the second half in extraordinary fashion. Based on the way this match was going, the fourth goal came a comparatively long time after the third, although it wasn’t exactly one that would be remembered for its finesse.
Saul this time was the crosser, and it wasn’t the best as Tarkowski looked as though he would easily intercept. For whatever reason though, the defender misjudged the pace of the ball, leading him to stretch his leg out too late, instead tapping the ball right towards Pulisic. He then smashed past Nick Pope, putting the glamour on top of what had already been a very classy performance from Tuchel’s side.
There were no more clear-cut opportunities, as the Blues opted to simply see out the remainder of the game, but given the difference in quality either side of the half time break, there was nobody complaining about a 4-0 win whatsoever.
There may have been some uncertainty with the news of a sale, but nothing that would affect the players themselves on the pitch. Unfortunately, as has been heavily publicised, that was all about to change.
Game 48/66: Burnley 0-4 Chelsea
Game 49/66: Norwich City vs Chelsea
That’s because on the morning of Thursday 10th March, the UK Government announced that, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they would be sanctioning certain influential individuals who may have been assisting in funding the military effort. On that list was a certain Roman Abramovich – and that meant that every single one of his assets would be frozen and unable to operate.
Effectively, Chelsea couldn’t do anything. Or rather they couldn’t, had it not been for the special licence afforded to them by the government, which allowed them to fulfil certain basic requirements, such as the payment of contracted staff, limited funds for travel, and for expenses on matchdays. What it didn’t allow for was any ticket sales whatsoever, nor the ability to negotiate new contracts, or even continue paying certain freelance staff. In short, it was absolute chaos.
There would go on to be some amendments to this licence to exempt particular matches from the ban on ticket sales – with all the proceeds either being frozen or going to a charitable foundation – but for the remainder of the season, the Blues were set to operate under extremely different circumstances to anything a football club had ever experienced.
So, it’s fair to say that, more than ever, minds were not completely focused on the matter at hand, which was a trip to the side sitting bottom of the Premier League in Norwich City. There were reports flying around left, right and centre about whether there may be a mass exodus of players and staff in the summer, whether a buyer could be found in time (the licence had an expiration date of 31st May), and whether upcoming games could even be played due to the extremely limited budget allowed for staging games.
It was reported that Thomas Tuchel and his squad were not pre-informed of the announcement before anybody else either – they found out at the same time as the rest of us – meaning it would’ve been no surprise to see their concentration levels dip below what they may usually have been at, as questions over whether they’d even be employed in a few months’ time were left unanswered.
To their immense credit though, they remained focused and professional, not just in this random Thursday night fixture, but for the rest of the season. Admittedly, it wasn’t perfect, and there were some tough times when various bidders were mentioned, including protests at times (more on that later), but by and large the way Thomas Tuchel (and Emma Hayes for that matter) dealt with the unprecedented situation was exemplary. And so finally, onto the game itself.
If there were any lingering nerves, they were settled relatively early on, as Mount put the ball into the area from a corner, where Trevoh Chalobah was waiting to flick into the back of the net. To truly calm things down, Mason Mount – who really showed his worth from this point of the season onwards at many points – doubled the visitors’ lead with less than a quarter of an hour gone.
Havertz wriggled through Canaries’ defenders, then found Mount waiting on the edge of the box, and after a touch to get it in front of him, the midfielder fired the ball high into the top right corner of the net, effectively ending the game there and then. Except, it wasn’t quite said and done, as the Blues ended up taking their metaphorical feet off the gas, which did seem to be working for some time, until midway through the second 45 minutes, when Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot for a handball by the first goalscorer, Chalobah.
Teemu Pukki stepped up and fulfilled his duties, getting Norwich back into the game, and that produced more than a few comments over whether the chaos off the pitch was already starting to seep into the performances on it. Not to worry though, because while there were a couple of somewhat hairy moments in the remaining time, the three points were sealed by none other than Kai Havertz in the final minute of the 90.
Kante’s neat turn gave him space to run into, and he pulled it back to the German, who leathered the ball across goal into the top left, giving Tim Krul absolutely no chance whatsoever. It was to be the first of many games under which Chelsea were subject to sanctions that would lead to fans and players alike becoming weary, but it was a job well done – even if it was going to have to be a Megabus home for the side from West London.
No expense spared, right?
Game 49/66: Norwich City 1-3 Chelsea
Game 50/66: Chelsea vs Newcastle
While the restrictions meant no further ticket sales for home Premier League games could take place, that didn’t mean that tickets already purchased prior to the sanctions weren’t valid, so for Chelsea’s next game against Newcastle United, there was a full house in attendance. It’s fair to say that the general mood amongst Blues’ supporters towards the media at the time was frosty to say the least.
It did feel as though every little thing supporters did was being hyper-analysed, including the ridiculous assertion that keeping up a banner, which had been hung at Stamford Bridge for many years, dedicated to Roman Abramovich, was somehow benefitting Vladimir Putin’s war effort. There was an almost surreal number of cameras filming home supporters as they entered the stadium, with the spotlight very much on for whether there would be any repeats of the chants for the sanctioned owner, that would no doubt be picked up upon by reporters.
Evidently aware of the fact they were being watched closely, the home fans were on their best behaviour in this one, with the aforementioned chant only heard very briefly on a couple of occasions, usually quickly being outsung by a much larger chorus proclaiming the club’s status as Champions of Europe.
There was also the irony in terms of the lack of criticism for the ownership of the opponents being a state with an extremely questionable human rights record, something played upon by both sets of supporters in a period of back and forth which was more entertaining than most of the game.
‘Where’s your money gone?’ cried the travelling fans, with a response of ‘Boris Johnson, he’s coming for you’ being retorted back to the away supporters. As mentioned, this wasn’t exactly a classic of a game, with chances few and far between for the vast majority of the match.
The closest either side came to breaking the deadlock in the first 45 minutes was when Matt Targett swung in a free kick that Antonio Rudiger headed away, and his clearance was volleyed towards goal with some venom by Miguel Almiron, forcing Edouard Mendy into a smart stop, the ball having travelled through a crowd of bodies.
Really, the most high-profile moment before half time came when Kai Havertz leapt up to compete for a header with the giant Dan Burn, and the German accidentally elbowed the defender in the face, prompting some calls for a dismissal, especially by the away fans, but he ended up getting just a yellow card – which would prove to be a pivotal decision later on. In all honesty, it was Newcastle who looked the stronger team for the majority of the game, with that chance from the first half, but also after the break they came out strong.
Another contentious decision came when Trevoh Chalobah appeared to foul Jacob Murphy in the box after the winger had skipped past him. The defender had a decent grasp of his opponent’s shirt in his hand, and also seemed to stick out a foot which tripped the Newcastle player over, but the referee simply pointed for a corner to the Magpies, much to Eddie Howe’s frustration.
Gradually the Blues began to show more promise up front, with Havertz having an excellent opportunity to put his team in front when Ziyech delivered a perfect ball to him in the box, but he could only head straight at Dubravka. Once more, there was the feeling that this would be a frustrating afternoon for Chelsea, having to settle for just one point – though at least in this one it would be more of a fair result than on previous occasions.
That was, until the penultimate minute of the game, when Jorginho floated a delightful pass over the Newcastle defence, which Havertz brought down beautifully with his first touch, before poking the ball into the back of the net. It was a goal out of almost absolutely nothing, but it gave the Blues not only a vital three points, but also a huge morale boost in extremely testing circumstances.
And all the while, Roman Abramovich’s banner remained hung in the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Stand, yet by the end of the game nobody even remembered that it was there.
Game 50/66: Chelsea 1-0 Newcastle
Game 51/66: Lille vs Chelsea
It’s easy to forget quite how quickly things changed with regards to the functioning of the club – at the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League Round of 16 tie against Lille, just three weeks before, talk of sanctions never crossed anybody’s mind. After all, Russia had yet to invade Ukraine, so the possibility that anything existential may affect the running of the football club itself would’ve seemed preposterous at the time.
Yet, 22 days later, there were discussions over whether the club could afford to send the Blues on a short trip across the English Channel if they were to abide by the spending caps set out in the special licence issued by the UK Government. In the end, it proved not to be quite as much a concern as many in the media sought to make out, with travel pre-booked some time before (not a sentence I expected to write in a season review), but the constant stream of potential disasters certainly didn’t help to placate the concerned mood amongst fans.
Luckily, the players and coaching staff were far more able to block out the most sensationalist news stories, instead just focusing on what they could control, and that was their performances on the pitch. Having taken a 2-0 lead on aggregate to Northern France, there weren’t expected to be too many concerns for the English side in this second leg.
Now, some drama could be added to this recap by talking first of the penalty Lille were awarded in the first half, that halved the deficit in the tie, but in truth that would be inaccurate for the mood during the game. The spot kick – given for a handball by Jorginho in the box and scored by Burak Yilmaz – was the only shot on target that the French outfit managed in this game.
In fact, the difference being one goal lasted for only 10 minutes, as in injury time at the end of the first half, the Blues created their first meaningful opportunity of the game and it was a slick move at that. Having bided their time playing the ball back and forth across the pitch, Jorginho spotted an opening for Christian Pulisic and played a perfectly-weighted through ball into the American, who shot first time across the goalkeeper to level things up on the night and put the Blues 3-1 up overall.
There was one brief moment of concern for the visitors midway through the second half, when Lille played a short corner and Yilmaz whipped in a ball that Xeka connected with unmarked, only for his header to cannon back off the post. Apart from that though, it was pretty much plain sailing for the away side, and they conclusively ended the tie in the 73rd minute through the captain Cesar Azpilicueta.
Mason Mount had put the ball in with some pace, but the Spaniard was there in time at the back post to bundle the ball in, not only giving Chelsea the lead on the night in France, but also all but sending them through to the quarter finals, taking them one step further to potentially defending their crown.
In a few weeks time they would meet Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge in the first leg of that round, but for now things were very much focused on the impressive feat that the Blues had accomplished by reaching the last eight for two seasons in a row.
It was the first time they had done so since the 2011/12 season, and adding in the contextual factors around the ownership made it all the more laudable too. Things may have been chaotic off the pitch, but on it things were going better than they had for many months.
Game 51/66: Lille 1-2 Chelsea
(Aggregate: Lille 1-4 Chelsea)
Game 52/66: Middlesbrough vs Chelsea
To finish off the month, it was a second FA Cup game in March, this time at the quarter final stage, with the Blues travelling up to the Riverside Stadium to face Middlesbrough, battling it out for a place in the semi finals at Wembley. It’s fair to say that this game saw more traction in terms of coverage than it otherwise might, not because of the sanctions directly, but because of the statement Chelsea had released a few days before the game.
Those restrictions on ticket sales meant only a few hundred away fans had bought tickets before the sanctions were implemented, which the visitors attempted to argue was unfair, and so the game should be played behind closed doors. That ridiculous assessment – albeit revoked after a few hours – led to plenty of criticism about the alleged irony of a club subject to sanctions complaining about sporting integrity.
Of course, it was unfair that fans were being punished for something completely out of their control, and these rules would be changed, though only for certain competitions. Alas, nothing was done in time ahead of this match, meaning there were less than a thousand away supporters in attendance to watch their team as they looked to spoil the Middlesbrough party.
It felt as though almost everybody was against Chelsea at this point, even if that wasn’t quite the case, so an almost revolutionary sense of ‘it’s us against the world’ developed amongst the fanbase. Whether that was the right attitude to take is arguable, but it certainly made watching this game that bit more enjoyable when the Blues refused to play along to the fairytale FA Cup story where the underdog beats the ‘pantomime villain’.
An early chance for Lukaku and Pulisic went begging, with neither able to get on the end of Mason Mount’s low ball across the box, but an almost identical move 10 minutes later did result in the opener. Once more Mount had plenty of space on the right hand side, and he fizzed in a ball in the direction of Lukaku, who simply passed the ball home.
Of course, he was still far from a fan favourite, but the few of Blue allegiance at the Riverside did celebrate his goal gleefully nonetheless. Half an hour in and Tuchel’s side doubled their lead, and it was a spectacular finish from Hakim Ziyech. He shot from a very long way out, and it looked to be comfortable enough for the goalkeeper, but the swerve on his shot duped the man in net and it nestled in the bottom left corner, with the Moroccan expressing a trademark cool response, simply giving a small fistbump in celebration.
It seemed a third was inevitable when Lukaku nicked the ball off Tavernier in the penalty area, rounding the ‘keeper in the process, but his resultant shot hit the side netting. Following that chance there were very few opportunities in the remainder of the game, and the second half felt simply a formality that had to be fulfilled at times.
Still, it was an important win on the road to potentially lifting some domestic silverware this season, and despite all the many vocal critics of the club in recent days and weeks, the Blues continued to march on defiantly, with Thomas Tuchel very much at the forefront of it all.
Game 52/66: Middlesbrough 0-2 Chelsea
Games Played: 6
Games Won: 6
Games Drawn: 0
Games Lost: 0
Month in three words: Defiant Despite Sanctions.
Written and Edited by Noah Robson (@noahrobson_)
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