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Chelsea begin Champions League defence with freedom and focus | David Hytner


The first thing to say is Chelsea did not party like it was 2012. They could not because of the restrictions of the pandemic. Nine years previously, having beaten Bayern Munich in Munich to win their first Champions League title, the squad had revelled in the mother and father of all celebrations at the team hotel.

A rooftop swimming pool provided the scene and, as the drinks flowed, people were thrown in. It went on until 8am, although some players and the manager, Roberto Di Matteo, did not make it that far, passing out in their suits on the terrace.

In Porto last May it was rather more laidback. Chelsea had beaten Manchester City to lift the trophy for a second time and any gatecrasher to the Alfandega Congress Centre by the side of the Douro river would have struggled to guess what was being toasted.

Not that the uninvited would have got in. Security was tight and, if your name was not on the list of a player or the club and you could not show proof of a negative Covid test, you had no chance. The players’ lists were short. They had been given only two tickets for a reduced attendance at the Dragão – with the option of being able to buy a further two.

So the party was limited to about 200 and was very much a family affair, filled with partners, parents, siblings and children. Yes, everybody was ecstatic, there was a bit of dancing and it went on until the early hours but it was not even as grandiose as the bash at the same venue the night before.

Chelsea’s players had been aware of that from the balcony of their hotel, The Yeatman, across the river. The building was illuminated in different colours, spotlights criss-crossed into the sky, movie premiere style, and they were told that it was a City function, laid on for the club’s sponsors. To Chelsea, it seemed as though their rivals had started to celebrate before the game; that they expected simply to roll up and win; that their success was somehow preordained. It riled them.

Thomas Tuchel (far left) takes a moment while his Chelsea players lift the Champions League trophy.
Thomas Tuchel (far left) takes a moment while his Chelsea players lift the Champions League trophy. Photograph: David Ramos/EPA

Did it make Chelsea’s victory that bit sweeter? It is hard to say but what is clear is that something changed inside the manager, Thomas Tuchel, and the players after the full-time whistle. The feeling of greater certainty will accompany them to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night, where they begin the defence of their title against Zenit Saint Petersburg in Group H.

“In the end, nothing is like winning,” says Tuchel, who had lost in the final of the competition with Paris Saint-Germain to Bayern the season before. “I had the feeling that it’s a big achievement to reach the final but not to do the last step is a huge difference when you realise what it means when you do it.

“It’s the perception from outside. It’s the joy, the experience, the confidence that your team gets by winning it. When you do the last step, nothing compares to it. Then it really changes something, I think, for everybody.”

By winning the big one, Tuchel and this Chelsea team have proved something fundamental, removing troublesome questions and a great weight of pressure. Now they can embrace a certain liberation and the positive motivation to hit the heights again. That is the theory, anyway. It could also be the case that Tuchel needed victory in last season’s final more than he will ever publicly admit, after the heartbreak he suffered at the end of the previous campaign.

“The most important is to keep the feeling [of success], to keep the hunger,” says Tuchel. “Because that feeling also creates a hunger for more and more. It’s addictive. In general, this game is about winning because winning changes your feeling, your atmosphere … it changes completely. It gives you natural confidence.

“But, at the same time, it is absolutely necessary to forget it and to start from scratch, to show this hunger and mentality again. This is what I demand from myself and everybody else around. People have this experience together forever and we can create a bond out of it but it is about looking up front [forward].”

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Chelsea’s last attempt to defend the Champions League was a disaster. They lost 3-0 at Juventus in the fifth round of group phase ties and it meant that they could not qualify for the last 16. Di Matteo was sacked the next day and replaced by Rafael Benítez. Tuchel will go step by step but his eyes remain on the prize.

“Nobody’s shy here to admit that we fight for any competition we play in,” says Tuchel. “When we play Champions League we fight for the maximum outcome. Tomorrow, this is three points. It may sound super boring but it is what it is. We need to start from scratch and have a good start. Let’s see how long this journey takes us. Hopefully I can prove to you and myself that I can make it all the way.”

Chelsea exploded from the shadows under Tuchel last season and the upshot was that the Stamford Bridge player entrance could be decorated with further pictures of silverware being lifted. The walls are intended to intimidate visitors and remind the home team of what is required. For Tuchel, they are a source of strength.



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