Chelsea 2-0 Lille (Havertz 8′, Pulisic 63’)
STAMFORD BRIDGE — Chelsea became the latest English club to move into pole position in their Champions League last-16 tie on the road to a final people are no longer sure where it will be played.
Chelsea will be confident of progressing to the quarter-finals when they head to Lille for reverse fixture, joining Manchester City and Liverpool as favourites in their respective second legs. And, given recent history, you cannot rule out an all-English final, as has been the case in two of the last three.
Whether that will still be hosted in St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, remains to be seen. With Europe standing on the verge of war, Uefa being urged to sever Russian ties and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson under pressure to sanction Russian oligarchs, the Champions League show rolled on in full flow. On display one of England’s leading football clubs owned by Russian Roman Abramovich, who that day had been discussed in parliament, with major Champions League sponsor Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy corporation, flashing all around Stamford Bridge’s advertising hoardings repeatedly throughout.
When Uefa promoted “the road to St Petersburg” in December the governing body had no idea it would link the Champions League to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but here we are.
On the pitch, Chelsea had a huge problem of their own: a £97.5m striker who doesn’t quite fit. There was a fierce tempo to the game’s opening fuelled, perhaps subconsciously, by the fear of “doing a Lukaku” – of ending the 90 minutes with only seven touches. Romelu Lukaku was dropped to the bench by manager Thomas Tuchel after that bizarre and faintly damning statistic emerged from their Premier League game against Crystal Palace.
“He looked a little exhausted and you have to consider he played a lot,” Tuchel said by way of explanation. And, admittedly, Lukaku had scored in both games on their way to lifting the Club World Cup trophy in Abu Dhabi, but they remain his only two goals in eight matches and it’s funny how in-form strikers tend not to need resting.
In his place played Kai Havertz, who wasted no time – and barely any touches – in scoring only eight minutes from kick-off. Havertz managed to surpass Lukaku’s seven touches within 15 minutes, one of those the towering header from Hakim Ziyech’s corner powered unstoppably down and past Lille goalkeeper Leo Jardim. He had almost scored with the touch before, shaping a side-footed shot around Lille’s goalkeeper, who did well to push the ball around the post.
Lille — the current French Ligue 1 holders — turned up with a team that felt as though it had been cobbled together based on old highlights reels. Euro 2016 winner Jose Fonte, formerly of Southampton and West Ham, now 38 years old, in defence. Renato Sanches, a major Bayern Munich signing as a teenager who has never lived up to a £66m price tag, in the front three. Hatem Ben Arfa was on the bench — remember him? As was Timothy Weah, the 22-year-old son of George, the former Ballon d’Or winner (and, as it goes, President of Liberia).
- Mendy – 7
- Christensen – 6
- Thiago Silva – 7
- Rüdiger – 6
- Azpilicueta – 6
- Kanté – 8
- Kovačić – 7
- Alonso – 7
- Ziyech – 7
- Havertz – 8
- Pulisic – 8
- Werner – 6
- Loftus-Cheek – 6
- Saul – 6
- Sarr – 6
- Leo Jardim – 6
- Çelik – 6
- Fonte – 6
- Botman – 6
- Djaló – 6
- Xeka – 6
- André – 6
- Sanches – 6
- Onana – 6
- Bamba – 5
- David – 5
- Gudmundsson – 6
- Ben Arfa – 6
- Yilmaz – 6
- Zhegrova -6
While Lukaku’s lacklustre performance against Crystal Palace became the focal point before this game, it’s perhaps indicative of a wider Chelsea malaise that has been masked, somewhat, by the club’s recent trophy and a run to Sunday’s League Cup final. (It will worry Chelsea fans that Mateo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech left the field injured and could be doubts for that game against Liverpool.)
Lille, meanwhile, have nowhere near hit the heights of last season and are currently struggling mid-table in the French top-flight. So, despite the feverish speed to which the game started, it still struggled to fully ignite, Chelsea instead doing just the job required.
A lull in the game made it more noticeable when, in the 31st minute, there was a minute’s applause for Jamal Edwards, the music entrepreneur who sadly passed away this week aged 31, accompanied by a chant that began in the the Matthew Harding end of, “Jamal Edwards, he’s one of our own.”
Chelsea still needed the second goal to make the return leg comfortable and Christian Pulisic provided it just after the hour. N’Golo Kante drove at Lille’s defensive line on a quick break then threaded a ball through for his American team-mate to take a couple of touches before sending the ball around Jardim even while slipping as he shot.
Despite the result, Tuchel appeared frustrated with the performance throughout, his constant presence hopping up and down on the touchline revealing what he made of it all.
Even so, as the road to the Champions League final became a fraught one for Uefa, current holders Chelsea at least made the latest step of their journey as simple as possible.