Chelsea held their nerve and their fans got to let it out, having finally been let back into Stamford Bridge. Thomas Tuchel’s side got the right result, on what proved to be the wrong game coming at the wrong time for Leicester City.
Brilliant as Chelsea were for the majority of the game, their 2-1 win felt mostly down to two factors.
One was the FA Cup final, and how that ultimate victory almost defeated Leicester here. They inevitably looked sapped of energy until those tense – and at one point rowdy – final few minutes, in the way we have seen with many similar situations over the decades when one victorious team play their victims in the very next game.
The second was the crowd. It was impossible not to link the effusive energy of Chelsea’s performance to the energy in the stands.
They were powered to this lead, and then sufficiently strengthened to hold it. All the old songs felt so fresh, and there was of course a chant to celebrate Frank Lampard after just a minute.
This win was not about looking back or revenge for Saturday, though. It was about the future, and the absolute necessity of finishing in the top for Tuchel.
The German now has that in sight again, greatly steadying things again after a significant wobble. Away to Aston Villa, Chelsea need only match Leicester’s result against Tottenham Hotspur on the final day – and thereby hold their nerve again – to hold onto their Champions League place. Leicester will be nervously watching Liverpool’s Wednesday match against Crystal Palace, but know they really have to win – and win well – on Sunday to ensure the FA Cup is not an effective consolation prize for a second successive lost Champions League place.
It was almost reflective of the season that Chelsea endured late nerves against Leicester, as Kelechi Iheanacho’s fine strike cut the advantage from Antonio Rudiger’s header and Jorginho’s penalty to one.
It meant there was an audible gasp just before the ball came to Ayoze Perez in the 90th minute, and then very clear relief when he blazed over. That was another sound – a human reaction – that we have missed, even if Chelsea were so grateful the forward also missed the chance.
The reality was that, as with this Champions League chase as a whole, Tuchel’s side should have been long out of sight. They really could have been four or five up after what was one of the most one-sided first halves this whole season.
There were some indications here as to why this Champions League chase has been more fraught than it should have been for Chelsea. Again, it was the finishing – but also getting to the finishing line. For all Chelsea’s control around the box, and the impressive way they take command of the space, there can be a reticence to flood the box given their pace. There were more than a few occasions – especially in that otherwise frenetic first half – when Leicester were rattled but Tuchel’s side were reluctant to really pour forward. A phalanx of players remained around 30 yards from goal, which obviously explains their fine defensive record but also points to the paucity of goals.
It is something that Tuchel will no doubt work on over the summer – but could also be solved with a summer signing, such as a Romelu Lukaku… or a Harry Kane. Big decisions are to be made, but there was one much more basic decision that was rather baffling at the start of this game. On one occasion when Chelsea did pour forward, Timo Werner went down under what seemed a clear clip by FA Cup hero Youri Tielemans. Even though Mike Dean was only a yard away and had VAR available, he inexplicably ruled a free out.
Chelsea still inexplicably went without scoring. They did everything but hit a legal goal, with the luckless Werner having two finishes disallowed.
It did seem like it was going to be one of those nights, that they would get stung. It made the eventual manner of those long-awaited goals all the more ironic. After all that, the brilliant Antonio Rudiger had the easiest of headers from a corner, before a decision finally went their way for a penalty. Jorginho made the finish look simple, but the ending was anything but.
Iheanacho raised the emotions, before a flashpoint on the line raised tempers for a huge row. We didn’t have another Battle of the Bridge, though. Chelsea got to the line.
It was a night to savour for the support. They were back at Stamford Bridge, and their club – surely – are back in the Champions League. They again look that bit better to go and actually win it.
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