There should be no negatives to take away from Chelsea’s dominant Champions League semi-finals performance against Real Madrid, the competition’s standard-bearers and final boss. Over the two legs played in the last week, Chelsea bodied and battered the reigning Spanish champions, walking away with a 3-1 aggregate victory and into an all-English final against Manchester City. But … doesn’t it seem like it was still too hard for the Blues?
There was no way to watch the first 85 minutes or so of Wednesday’s game without thinking, “Boy, Chelsea sure is missing a lot of chances!” That has really been the story of the club’s season, particularly since Thomas Tuchel took over. The German manager has set up the team perfectly in pretty much every game—and especially against Real Madrid; he completely out-coached Zinedine Zidane across two legs—but he can’t kick the ball into the goal for his players. The story of Timo Werner’s poor finishing this season has been well-chronicled, and his propensity for being offsides at all times called back a goal early on in the second leg.
Werner made up for it, somewhat, in the 28th minute, after his countryman and strike partner Kai Havertz hit the crossbar with a filthy chip, allowing Chelsea’s no. 11 the easiest finish he’s had all year. CBS commentator Clive Tyldesley said it well: “Too many misses this season, but he couldn’t miss that one.”
I want to throw in a special shout-out here to that filthy, disgusting, just plain rude turn by N’Golo Kanté in the leadup to the goal. Poor Nacho had no chance to do anything about it.
Really, that was the story of the entire match. Chelsea dominated the midfield in transition, allowing Real to have 68 percent of possession and then turning on the jets the other way. It’s hard to say a team got outplayed when it controlled so much of the ball, but all of Los Blancos’ limp passing added up to basically nothing. Their only stellar chance happened right before Werner’s goal from a half-turn strike by Karim Benzema that needed a similarly stellar Edouard Mendy save. Other than that, though, the majority of the chances fell to Chelsea, and it’s fair to say that a team with better finishing would have, and should have, won by a lot more than two goals across both legs.
Wednesday’s game had even more woodwork doinks, shots that sailed way over, and generally beautiful buildups that amounted to nothing. Defector is a pro-Christian Pulisic shop, so I must say here that his introduction for Werner only ratcheted up the Chelsea pressure more, and it was his assist to that finished the tie up. Like Werner in the first half, there was no way that Mason Mount could have missed this chance, and maybe that’s all Chelsea needed on the day: basic finishes that in no way taxed the attacker:
It’s been a wild season at Stamford Bridge. Frank Lampard’s managerial stint was a nightmare for Chelsea fans, even after a summer that signaled the club’s intentions to be at the top of England. That didn’t quite materialize domestically, though bringing in Tuchel has seen the Blues climb from the mid-table into a decent shout for a Champions League spot. The club might not need that, though; all that stands in its way on the search for both its second Champions League title and an automatic qualification spot is a Manchester City side that rode some finishing luck of its own into a tighter-than-it-seemed 4-1 aggregate win over Paris Saint-Germain.
Chelsea beat City last month in the semi-final of the FA Cup, in another Tuchel master-class. Will Chelsea be able to pull it off again at the end of the month and raise the most prestigious trophy in Europe? If it finishes like it did on Wednesday, it’s going to be difficult, but if they also play as well on the break as it did against Real Madrid, it might not matter whether they score one goal or seven. More than that, though, Chelsea is a team that absorbed the typical first-season struggles of its summer purchases—no mention here of Hakim Ziyech, who came on as a substitute late on—and still managed a Champions League final berth. If those debut jitters get ironed out this summer, the Blues have the right setup and the right manager to become England’s next stunning force of nature.