It was viewed as yet another turbulent time for Chelsea. Back in January, halfway through a perfectly decent-looking season, the club decided to remove club icon Frank Lampard as manager. Before that, his team had comfortably navigated their Champions League group and the homegrown youngsters were being successfully shown the ropes. For the fans, nothing but clear blue skies seemed to lie ahead as they sailed serenely towards a bright new future.
The positives were undeniable. The talents produced in-house, such as Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James and Mason Mount, were starting regularly and growing up together at a nice pace, with Hudson-Odoi scoring at Rennes and Abraham also popping one in during the home game against the Ligue 1 side. When a little experience was needed, Olivier Giroud stepped in, usually to devastating effect; his goal against Rennes was a mere appetiser for the feast that followed away to Sevilla in December. Cue four brilliant goals that demolished what was expected to be a very stuffy Spanish team.
That game was hugely important for another reason. Chelsea had made nine changes from their previous Premier League outing, yet incredibly they were still just as strong. The belief within the squad grew noticeably from that moment and they swiftly tied up top spot in the group with a controlled draw against Krasnodar. No one could have forecast that Lampard would be gone by the next Champions League game, replaced by Thomas Tuchel. The fans had been content with Lampard steering the venerable ship calmly ahead, but the club wanted a super-charged speedboat.
Giroud’s genius overhead kick against Atlético de Madrid swung their round of 16 tie in the first leg and two more goals at Stamford Bridge dispatched Diego Simeone’s side. The system was set and it was solid, with Thiago Silva adding the final touch of leadership and class. Chelsea conceding goals became almost as rare as full houses at a football match in this difficult season.
Tuchel began to collect elite managerial scalps with an impressive run of tactically astute victories. Along with Simeone, the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, José Mourinho, Jürgen Klopp and even Pep Guardiola had all lost to his tightened-up team by mid-April. And while an outbreak of 1-0 wins looked more like binary code than football results, the absent fans haven’t been caring, with Chelsea having flown up the league table and reached an FA Cup final.
It was a huge decision to remove the much-loved Lampard but few Chelsea supporters now consider it a mistake, despite the tinge of sadness. They still adore the old boss and his name is sung wherever Chelsea fans meet. Who knows, he might be back a few years down the line.
In the quarter-final of the world’s most prestigious club tournament, Chelsea got the draw they wanted. Porto were no lightweights, as the 2-1 aggregate scoreline soon underlined, but avoiding the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Liverpool and Real Madrid was a stroke of luck. By now Tuchel had begun to work his most impressive magic and the team was maturing at an unnatural rate, but on top of that he was improving already very good players.
Scorer of a superb goal away to Porto, Mount had blossomed into a midfielder who is not only one of Tuchel’s first picks but England manager Gareth Southgate’s as well. Meanwhile, it is still beyond my understanding how Tuchel made N’Golo Kanté better, considering the world-class qualities he already possessed, but somehow he has. Any team in the world would want Kanté now and he would be one of their best players, if not the best.
By the time Chelsea stepped onto the field for the first leg of their semi-final against Real Madrid, they were a mean machine. Apart from an aberration with ten men against West Bromwich Albion, they had been shipping a goal every five hours on average in Tuchel’s other 20 games at the helm. Just as impressively, the former Paris coach had finally freed the astounding, soon to be world-class talents of Christian Pulišić and Kai Havertz, while ensuring that Timo Werner’s pace was also now being used to destructive effect.
Would Zinédine Zidane join the list of big-name coaches to be toppled by Tuchel? Both managers changed their systems, with Zizou going to a back three – a rarity for the 13-time European champions. Tuchel delicately changed his 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2. On the night, the Frenchman’s change proved a disaster while the German’s was a masterstroke. Had Chelsea’s finishing been no more than adequate, the tie could have been over in the first 30 minutes.
The real genius was to move Mount deeper so that he, Jorginho and Kanté could pit themselves against Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos and Casemiro. In that game within a game, Chelsea’s more youthful and energetic trio emerged triumphant. Real were very lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw but it was clear that if they gave away half as many chances at Stamford Bridge, the result would not be in doubt. As it was, Chelsea created twice as many chances – and the 3-1 aggregate result could just as easily have been 8-2, because Chelsea were that dominant.
Before the quarter-finals, Chelsea were huge outsiders to lift this trophy for the second time in the club’s history. And yet tonight they arrive fearless, even though Manchester City are not only a brilliant side but also the most beautiful team to watch in world football. The darker blues have improved so rapidly since January that in truth, nothing now seems beyond their reach.
Diffident dynamo N’Golo Kanté on the friendships and hardships experienced on the way to tonight’s final
“I think we both realise it’s exceptional,” says N’Golo Kanté of his impending reunion with Riyad Mahrez. And in doing so, true to his famously humble nature, he is massively understating the achievement.
The duo have been adversaries in the Premier League since their careers diverged following Leicester City’s fairytale title triumph in 2015/16. Now they face off for European club football’s biggest prize nearly eight years, and a buccaneer’s booty of top trophies, since their first meeting, when Kanté played at SM Caen and Mahrez at Le Havre AC in France’s second division.
“It’s taken a lot of work from being in Ligue 2 until now – and a lot of perseverance on the pitch and in training – so to be playing a match like this is fantastic,” says Kanté. “But we both want to win, so we won’t be friendly on the pitch. We’ve spoken about it and we’re happy to be here. I hope it works out for me – and he’s hoping it’ll work out for him, of course!”
There were moments when Kanté thought it might not work out for him at all. Playing youth football in the Paris suburbs he was passed over by academies, eventually signing a contract with US Boulogne in the amateur backwaters of French football in 2010. “To have got where I am today with Chelsea – and to be lucky enough to play in a Champions League final – bearing in mind everything that’s happened in the meantime, is amazing,” says the World Cup and Europa League winner whose seemingly endless reserves of energy have fuelled Thomas Tuchel’s men through the competition. “Even if you’re tired, sometimes you just have to go for it and make a difference going forward. It’s all about mentality.”
That steely mind, married with metronomic legs and on-the-ball nous, have seen the 30-year-old take the midfield art to a new level. He’s pushing the boundaries set by two men who inspired him: former France international and Chelsea midfielders Lassana Diarra and Claude Makélélé. “I have had some chats with Claude since I came to Chelsea,” says Kanté of the 2002 Champions League winner who is now part of the Blues’ backroom staff. “He has given me advice on my play and also on my career: what I can work on, what I can improve and what I can be.
“I obviously drew inspiration from them at some point but in the end, I’m not like them. I have been lucky to be in touch with them, but I have my own career and path.” The most unassuming of superstars will be hoping that his path leads to victory in Porto.