Kai’s the limit: Chelsea revel in Champions League glory

Published on May 31, 2021 08:36 AM IST

City fail to deliver in Europe again as Kai Havertz’s solitary goal hands the Blues the Champions League.

Chelsea's Kai Havertz celebrates after winning the Champions League.(Pool via REUTERS) PREMIUM
Chelsea's Kai Havertz celebrates after winning the Champions League.(Pool via REUTERS)
ByBhargab Sarmah, Guwahati

In competitive sport, the best team doesn’t always win. Sometimes, the smarter one does. This truism perhaps sums up Chelsea’s Champions League triumph, edging favourites Manchester City 1-0 in Saturday’s final at Porto.

Pep Guardiola’s City were widely viewed as the best team in Europe this season. After the club’s domestic dominance in the last decade, Saturday was meant to be when City would finally deliver in Europe.

Instead, Guardiola’s tactical tinkering played into the hands of Thomas Tuchel’s tactics. Chelsea managed the game exceptionally well, limiting the English champions to just one shot on target. It landed the London giants their second Champions League title.

In hindsight, Guardiola’s decision not to start a holding midfielder proved calamitous. City like to control the ball and the tempo of the game, but managed neither. Chelsea exploited the lack of a shield in front of City’s defence in the first half and scored the all-important goal through young striker Kai Havertz, after a brilliant Mason Mount pass through the gaping hole the advanced defence had left, in the 42nd minute.

City played 61 games this season across all competitions. Other than Saturday, the only game in which neither of the holding midfielders Rodri and Fernandinho started was in a Champions League group stage game against Olympiacos. They had been that crucial.

Guardiola chose to start an out-of-form Raheem Sterling in an attack-heavy team. Often criticised for ‘overthinking’ his tactics in Europe, the 50-year-old Catalan’s gamble will be classified as such after this result.

Defensive masterclass

It would be unfair to attribute the result to Guardiola’s failed gamble alone. Tuchel and Chelsea had done their research, though the absence of a defensive midfielder for City aided their cause in the first half.

The German manager has significantly improved Chelsea’s defence since replacing Frank Lampard in January, and it was with that fine-tuned backline as the foundation that the Blues conquered Europe for the second time in club history.

While City’s defensive fragility was exposed twice in the opening half, one can’t ignore the fact that Guardiola’s side simply failed to create enough during the game. Even with an additional attacker than usual in the competition this season, City looked out of ideas at times.

City’s off-the-ball movement, pressing and most tactical manoeuvres up front were comfortably dealt with by Chelsea. Bernardo Silva was rendered ineffective as was the usually influential Kevin De Bruyne, till the Belgian’s second-half injury that has resulted in facial fractures.

Chelsea managed for the most part of the game without seasoned defender Thiago Silva, who left following an injury in the first half. The adhesive that held the team and the set-up together was Frenchman N’Golo Kante, who put in another match-winning performance from midfield. What City missed, Chelsea achieved through the brilliant defensive midfielder.

It also cannot be ignored that this Chelsea is pretty much Frank Lampard’s team. He signed the attacking trio of Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Havertz as well as Silva, Ben Chilwell and the ever-reliable goalkeeper Edouard Mendy.

The former England star and Chelsea legend also promoted the likes of Reece James, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham into the first team, though Abraham has subsequently given the cold shoulder by Tuchel. “Without Lampard, I would not be here,” Brazilian Silva told French broadcaster RMC Sport after the game. “I’m very happy, and I hope he will be too.”

But it is Tuchel under whom the team has stepped it up in the second half of the season. The Blues have kept 11 clean sheets in the league in 19 games since Tuchel’s arrival from PSG. Mendy kept nine clean sheets in the Champions League campaign, and five of them have remarkably come in their seven knockout games.

Domestic form irrelevant

Chelsea’s victory and City’s loss is also a reminder that domestic form has little relevance in Europe. It was true during the days of the European Cup, when Aston Villa won the title after finishing 11th in the league, or Nottingham Forest triumphed after being fifth domestically. This holds true even in the days of its successor, the Champions League.

In the last 25 years, 14 winners have been teams that had failed to win their domestic league. Six of these winners have come in the last 10 seasons. In fact, winning the league and the Champions League in the same season has proven to be particularly difficult for English teams.

In the Premier League-Champions League era, only Manchester United became European and English champions in the same season—in 1998/99 and 2007/08. Prior to that, Liverpool achieved it in 1976/77 and 1983/84. That is only four of the 14 times when English teams have won the European crown.

Real Madrid, European champions for a record 13 times, have won seven of those titles in the last quarter of a century, six of them when they have failed to win the league. Three years back, Madrid finished 17 points behind the La Liga winners while they went on to win the Champions League.

Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan were often accused of prioritising Champions League over Serie A.

When they won the 2006/07 Champions League, Milan finished 36 points behind the Serie A winners, although that was partly due to an eight-point penalty following the Calciopoli scandal.

Chelsea, who finished fourth and 19 points behind league champions City this year, had finished sixth in the Premier League, 25 points behind the champions, when they won their maiden Champions League title in 2012.

Of course, one can’t forget Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool side that won the 2004/05 Champions League after a miraculous second-half comeback in Istanbul against AC Milan. That season, Liverpool had finished fifth in the Premier League, 37 points behind champions Chelsea.

Managerial model

Over the years, Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich has gained notoriety for his constant chopping and changing of the managerial staff. In fact, the only full-time manager to have not been sacked by the club in the Abramovich era was Maurizio Sarri, even whose future had come under scrutiny by the time he left for Juventus in 2019.

The convention in football is that managers need time to implement their philosophy at a club. The examples of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, in particular, are held up to show how long-term support can help managers transform their clubs. Chelsea, in the Abramovich era, have been an antithesis of this popularly held belief.

A significant part of Chelsea’s success has come under managers hired midway through the season. The Blues have reached three Champions League finals in their history—all have come under managers who came in for someone booted out in the middle of the campaign (Avram Grant in 2008, Roberto Di Matteo in 2012, and now Tuchel).

In the last 12 years, Chelsea have won two Champions League, one Europa League and two FA Cup titles under interim managers or managers who replaced sacked predecessors.

Chelsea are perhaps a perfect example of how managerial stability is hardly the most important criteria for success in modern-day football, especially when you have a lot of money.

“I can assure him (Abramovich) that I will stay hungry, that I want the next title and I feel absolutely happy, as part of a really ambitious club, a strong part of a strong group,” Tuchel said of his conversation with the club owner in a brief meeting on the pitch on Saturday.

Tuchel will only be wary of Chelsea’s managerial musical chairs, but that can wait. It is time for celebrations now.

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