Kai Havertz’s stunner against Salzburg sends Chelsea into knockout stages | Champions League
If it is true that teams embody the manager’s personality, then it is perhaps no surprise that Chelsea exuded composure as their hopes of reaching the last 16 of the Champions League were thrown into doubt by a thrilling comeback from RB Salzburg.
The comeback had come out of nowhere, Junior Adamu sending the Red Bull Arena wild by canceling out Mateo Kovacic’s early strike, and for a fleeting moment it was tempting to wonder if Graham Potter would be accused of overthinking his tactics.
A fluid system with Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic as wing-backs suddenly felt good for the Cavaliers. Chelsea had hit all the shots in the first half and now, with the crowd roaring on Salzburg, there was trouble.
Not for long, though. If one quality has characterized Chelsea under Potter, it is their liquidity. They made their superior class tell by hitting back with a magnificent goal from Kai Havertz and while the second half was fraught at times, they could finally celebrate winning Group E with a game to spare. “It’s not easy to win here,” said Potter, who remains unbeaten since replacing Thomas Tuchel last month. “Our response at 1-1 was very good.”
It was the kind of decisive response that had proved elusive when Potter’s first taste of life at Chelsea, as well as this competition, came in a 1-1 draw with Salzburg six weeks ago. They have recovered well after taking one point from their opening two games, crushing wins against Milan revitalizing the momentum and given the intensity of the schedule, Potter admitted it will be a boost to rest some tired limbs against Dinamo Zagreb next week. “To go through like we have is fantastic for everybody,” he said.
Potter had certainly made things interesting by responding to his team’s defensive injuries by choosing a line-up that featured Jorginho screening the back three, Havertz supporting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front, and Pulisic and Sterling in unfamiliar roles.
It was a way to solve Chelsea’s creative problems – the idea behind Sterling’s positioning was to exploit Salzburg’s narrow 4-3-2-1 system – and the early signs were promising. There was a chance for Havertz, denied by Philipp Köhn, and a wasteful touch from Aubameyang after Conor Gallagher played him through.
Gallagher was impressive on his first start in Europe, offering cutting edge from midfield, and Chelsea’s flexibility was at times lacking in Salzburg. It was no surprise when the opening came in the 23rd minute. Gallagher’s cross caused problems and Havertz forced a desperate tackle from Maximilian Wöber, whose clearance ran to Kovacic. The midfielder’s finish, a left-footed drive that left Köhn rooted to the spot, swung high into the net and was barely there for a player who hadn’t scored since January 2.
But Potterball always offers surprises. Chelsea soon opened Salzburg up again, Sterling drifting inside to start a one-touch sequence that saw Kovacic release Havertz. The only thing missing was recklessness from Aubameyang, whose shot was blocked by Köhn.
The visitors created chances at will. Havertz and Aubameyang had headers saved, and the only disappointment for Chelsea was that they only scored once in the opening period. It had ended with Sterling playing in Aubameyang, who was blocked by Köhn again. Chelsea’s lethargy encouraged Salzburg. Matthias Jaissle’s side were far more aggressive in the second half and eventually began to damage a defense weakened by injuries to Reece James, Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly.
The equalizer was a tactical disaster for Chelsea. Wöber moved down the left, taking advantage of Pulisic’s inexperience at right wing-back, and the full-back’s crosses revealed further cracks. It bent past Cucurella, who was outnumbered at the far post, and with Sterling nowhere to be seen on the cover, Adamu deflected the finish past Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Still, Chelsea refused to panic. Amar Dedic frustrated Aubameyang. Jorginho’s header was hacked clear. Finally, Havertz collected a pass on the edge of the area, moved the ball onto his left foot and bent a superb shot in off the underside of the bar.
The job is done? Not completely. Salzburg threatened again when Benjamin Sesko, who was on for Luka Susic, turned Trevoh Chalobah and tested Arrizabalaga with a rasping shot. Then Arrizabalaga was beaten to a long shot by Strahinja Pavlovic, whose header was palmed away by Thiago Silva.
Recognizing the need for more energy and solidity, Potter introduced Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic, César Azpilicueta for Pulisic and Armando Broja for Aubameyang. It was just about enough to get Chelsea over the line.