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It was a matter of two minutes. Those 120 seconds against Real Madrid that ultimately secured a spot in the Champions League final was a reminder of what used to be for Chelsea, the distance they’ve travelled so rapidly under Thomas Tuchel, and the illuminating immediate future that lies ahead.
The half-hour mark hadn’t materialised yet at Stamford Bridge when Karim Benzema picked up possession 25 yards out and powered a low curler destined for the bottom right.
Edouard Mendy extended himself, using a fingertip to push the effort around the post. It was superb goalkeeping and it seemed an altogether different age when Chelsea’s situation between the sticks was destabilising the team to such epic proportions that conceding was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then, before Zinedine Zidane’s men knew it, they were behind. N’Golo Kante had played a one-two with Timo Werner, who spun and supplied Kai Havertz out wide. He motioned into the box down the left channel, drew Thibaut Courtois and clipped the keeper, with the cute effort cannoning off the crossbar.
But Werner had been following up and headed the dropping ball in to put Chelsea ahead and through to Istanbul.
It seemed an altogether different age when the Germany international was seen as an expensive, duff purchase by the Stamford Bridge side, cursed in front of goal.
In those moments, it seemed impossible that this Chelsea was that Chelsea which stumbled over and over again earlier in the campaign, their own biggest obstacle in every fixture.
Defensive mistakes were part of the club’s DNA under Frank Lampard, with his side making more errors leading to goals than any other team in the division this season at the point of his sacking.
No Chelsea manager since Ruud Gullit, who departed in February 1998, had overseen a worse record of successful efforts conceded per game.
Most of the problems were pinned on Kepa Arrizabalaga, the world-record signing as a goalkeeper, whose confidence was shot with the basics of his game going walkabout.
But that was too simplistic, as the club’s performances under Tuchel have shown with greater organisation, balance, tactical nous and discipline leading to an FA Cup final and contesting the most prestigious fixture in club football.
On Wednesday night, Real became the latest scalp in an eye-catching list of conquests since the manager’s appointment in late January.
Chelsea have ousted Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Everton, Porto and Manchester City too. In those fixtures, famed tacticians Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Diego Simeone, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t work a goal against the Tuchel machine.
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Over two legs, Real under Zidane could only mastermind one. They spent much of the encounter grateful for Courtois maintaining a respectful scoreline with Mason Mount confirming the victory late on.
Chelsea had restricted the visitors to a meagre two shots inside the box, while having them on the ropes through wonderful break after break with Mount typically superb and Kante naturally doing the work of multiple players – painting it as effortless.
The Champions League final is the reward, which is a grand enough prize in itself. But by achieving such a feat after only four months under Tuchel, the greater win might be what this team can ultimately become.
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Published: 2021-05-05 21:22:10
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