When Thomas Tuchel was given the job of reviving Chelsea at the end of January, he wanted to return them to next season’s Champions League via a top-four Premier League finish. The notion that he might actually win the thing for only the second time in the club’s history was ludicrous.
Not any more. On a night of glory for him and his team, the manager applied the final brush strokes to his renaissance masterpiece, out-manoeuvring his friend and rival, Pep Guardiola, and watching Kai Havertz score the decisive goal just before half-time.
Chelsea defended like demons to snuff out Manchester City but this was a perfectly calibrated triumph, built upon a structured attacking approach, choosing the right moments to transition, and illuminated by the smoothness of Havertz’s technique.
At the end, after the seven minutes of stoppage time had expired, with Riyad Mahrez having lifted a shot just off target for City with practically the last kick, and as the players in dark blue were overtaken by wide-eyed wonder, by the adrenaline main-lining their systems, Tuchel was relatively calm, trying to take it all in.
At the end of last season, Tuchel had been on the losing side in Europe’s showpiece final when his Paris Saint-Germain team were edged out by Bayern Munich. Perhaps the pain made this even sweeter.
What is irrefutable is how virtually everything Tuchel has touched since taking over from Frank Lampard has turned to gold. There has been the successful switch to a back three, which was plotted on the flight over from Paris on the day before his first game – his team have kept 19 clean sheets in 30 matches in all competitions – and the rise up from ninth in the league to the goal of fourth.
The one blot has been the FA Cup final loss to Leicester but that is old news, laid to rest by the delirium of all this. Tuchel remembers Chelsea’s first Champions League victory as a “burglary” against Bayern in 2012. This was nothing of the sort and, after a third win in three against Guardiola’s City, he can look forward to a lucrative new contract, replacing that one that will run out next summer.
Havertz was the Chelsea hero, oozing class on the ball, looking every inch the high-end addition from last summer, but N’Golo Kanté ran him close, as he did everybody in a City shirt. The midfielder’s reading of the game, coupled with his speed and decisiveness, was a joy to watch, while Antonio Rüdiger stood out in a defence that absorbed the 38th minute loss of Thiago Silva to injury.
City’s misery was reflected in the tears of their captain, Kevin De Bruyne, when he was forced off on 59 minutes after a cynical check by Rüdiger and the questions raged long into the night for Guardiola.
The pressure had been on the manager because, whether he likes it or not, his tenure at City will be defined by whether he wins the Champions League. It is the trophy that Sheikh Mansour has craved since his takeover in 2008, since he started funnelling all that cash into the club – around £1.7bn on transfer fees alone.
Was Guardiola influenced by what he saw from Tuchel’s Chelsea in those defeats in the FA Cup semi-final and the league; by the need to try something surprising? He certainly did that. The pre-match expectation had been that he faced an either/or question between Fernandinho and Rodri in defensive midfield. In the event, he chose neither. And, in the expected absence of a recognised No 9, we had the full Pep – a lineup loaded with attacking midfielders and wingers.
It was a battle to classify the City formation, particularly as Oleksandr Zinchenko stepped from left-back into midfield. Phil Foden buzzed around De Bruyne, who played up front, with Bernardo Silva asked to get up and down to the right of Ilkay Gündogan, the deepest sitting midfielder, and Mahrez and Raheem Sterling providing the width.
It was a complicated gameplan and, for long spells, the players could not execute it. Cohesion eluded them and there were wobbles at the back early on. Chelsea found gaps and they would have led if Timo Werner had allied cutting edge to his dangerous movement. Werner air-kicked when gloriously placed from a Havertz cross and also lacked balance and conviction folllowing a Ben Chilwell cut-back.
It was startling to see how easily Chelsea played through them for the goal. The move started with Édouard Mendy and, when Mason Mount looked up after a Chilwell lay-off, the pass was on for Havertz. Werner’s run had created the space and Havertz got there ahead of the onrushing Ederson, catching a little break off the goalkeeper before rolling it into the empty net.
City’s best moment of the first half came midway through it when De Bruyne fed Foden only for Rüdiger to stretch into a saving challenge. Sterling had almost got on to a long ball in the eighth minute only to take a poor touch and there were crosses that almost found their mark. Almost was the word.
Guardiola introduced Gabriel Jesus for De Bruyne and later Sergio Agüero for Sterling. Now he had two strikers. He also brought on Fernandinho in defensive midfield. But Chelsea had the bit between their teeth; they put their bodies on the line, with the captain, César Azpilicueta, leading by example. They could even have sealed it on the counter when Havertz played in the substitute Christian Pulisic, only for him to dink wide.
It was difficult to remember City truly quickening the pulse in front of goal after the interval – Mahrez’s last-gasp attempt aside – and the pain was etched all over Guardiola. The law of this competition dictates that clubs must suffer before they finally win it. City are going through agonies.