When Thomas Tuchel was given the job of reviving Chelsea at the end of January, he wanted to return the club 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.
The pressure had been on City, on Guardiola, to deliver the trophy that Sheikh Mansour has craved since his takeover in 2008 but it was an occasion when the manager found a new way to lose, to plumb fresh depths of frustration.
Guardiola, who last won the Champions League in 2011, started with no defensive midfielder and no recognised striker and watched his midfielder-heavy line-up struggle to implement a complicated gameplan. For long spells, City butted their heads against Chelsea’s well-organised lines and the upshot was the end of their push to complete a treble. Chelsea’s joy knew no bounds.
It was a night that many City supporters thought they would never see and certainly not before they became acquainted with Sheikh Mansour. But it was one for those who had travelled to savour – along with their Chelsea counterparts – and what a thrill it was to finally feel an atmosphere inside a stadium for a Champions League tie during this most singular of seasons.
The subplots were plentiful and, yes, the money was one of them. Under the Sheikh, City have spent £1.7bn on signings and their most recent accounts showed a player wage bill of £351m – a Premier League record. For Chelsea, the headline figure is £2bn on signings since Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003 and that includes a net spend of £152m last summer – the biggest of any club in Europe.
What this showpiece was really about was the beauty and excitement of what those funds have helped to create; all of the attendant talking points about these high-calibre players and, for City in particular, there could be plenty of discussion about Guardiola’s starting lineup.
The pre-match expectation had been that he faced an either/or question between Fernandinho and Rodri in defensive midfield. In the event, it was neither. As expected, there was no recognised No 9 and so we had the full Pep – a lineup loaded with attacking midfielders and wingers.
It was a battle to try to classify the City formation, particularly as Oleksandr Zinchenko stepped from left-back into midfield. But for long spells of the first half, Phil Foden buzzed around Kevin De Bruyne up front – with Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling providing the width. Bernardo Silva was asked to get up and down to the right of Ilkay Gündogan, the deepest sitting midfielder.
It was fast, furious and open, with Chelsea finding gaps at the outset as Tuchel hoped they would – and creating big chances. Timo Werner will want his time again on the first two. As ever, the forward’s movement was a threat but, on those early openings, he fluffed his lines.
There was a lovely low cross from Havertz that encouraged Werner, who was well placed, only for him to swing and miss with his left foot and then a pull back from Ben Chilwell from the same side that did likewise. Werner never looked balanced and he was unable to summon any power or precision on the finish. Ederson saved. Werner would also fire into the side-netting from a tight angle.
City had a few wobbles at the back in the opening quarter – including Rúben Dias and John Stones being caught out – and it was incredible to see how easily Chelsea played through them for the breakthrough 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 before 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 Antonio 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.
Had Guardiola been 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? What he needed in the second half was greater collective cohesion or a flash of inspiration from somewhere because the first period had not been good enough.
Havertz oozed class on the ball, looking every inch the high-end addition, while City knew that they had to find a way past N’Golo Kanté before they got at Chelsea’s miserly backline, which absorbed the loss of Thiago Silva to injury on 38 minutes. Kanté’s reading of the game, coupled with his speed and decisiveness, was a joy to watch.
Guardiola needed a rethink and his hand was forced when De Bruyne was forced off in the 58th minute after a check by Rüdiger. The City captain’s face was swollen and the tears welled in his eyes when it became clear he could not continue.
It was a heart-breaking moment. Gabriel Jesus came on up front while Guardiola also swapped Silva for the defensive midfield presence of Fernandinho.
Chelsea dug in, putting their bodies on the line, and they could have sealed it when Havertz played in the substitute, Christian Pulisic, only for him to aim a dinked finish wide. Having started with no centre-forwards, Guardiola finished with two, Sergio Agüero introduced for Sterling and, amid the rarest form of tension, it came down to whether Chelsea could hold out. When Mahrez flashed over at the death, Chelsea’s celebrations exploded.