With a game-changing performance against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, Kai Havertz finally showed his true potential in a Chelsea shirt.
Football, bloody hell. Those immortal words from the great Sir Alex Ferguson on a balmy night in May 1999 have come to succinctly symbolize everything great about this crazy, beautiful game we all love. And, to be fair, when comparing the emotions and ramifications of that night at Camp Nou to this laissez-faire last 16 second leg, the occasion could fall flat. This was not an unimaginable, inexplicable last-minute turnaround in the biggest game of the year. This was a controlled, comfortable stroll in a park previously thought to be dangerous.
And it was only that way because Thomas Tuchel and co made it so. They turned what was the most competitive tie of the round into a one-sided, nearly benign affair. And they did it as one, even if one man stood out.
No, I’m not talking about Cristiano Ronaldo, without whom the Blues became the first team in Champions League history to beat Atletico Madrid in a two-legged knockout tie. No, I’m not talking about Reece James, who dragged not one but two opposing full-backs through the mud in a tireless and commanding performance beyond his years.
Nor do I mean N’Golo Kante, who in both his running and reading of play may well have put in his best performance in a Chelsea shirt, though what an exhaustive process that would be to confirm. Nor am I talking about Antonio Rudiger, whose controlled aggression and needle rendered any debate about this being his best display in Blue null and void come the cherry-on-top red card of Stefan “Yes, I’m still at Atletico and somehow only just 30” Savic.
No, we’re talking about Kai Havertz, and his first truly confident showing at Stamford Bridge. The German was disciplined off the ball and daring on it. Yet, whereas previous moments of ambition have appeared foolhardy at times – the phrase “we’re not in Kaiserslautern anymore” comes to mind – on Wednesday night it was met with a cool, precise pragmatism. The flicks were coming off, the pace seemed back, and it had the mind to go with it – all of which proved vital in the build-up to that all-important opening goal.
Sure, there have been glinting flashes of such promise before, but never on this kind of stage, with this level of influence. And, to clarify, as previously alluded to, he was not even the most influential performer on the night. But if this is the start of a new Havertz in west London (by proxy a return to the old Havertz with subsequent evolution) then it may well be one of the most influential on Chelsea’s future.
Because, for all the cause for celebration, an elephant in the room remains. A cumbersome, cockeyed and profligate elephant at that. We’re talking, of course, of Chelsea’s baffling inability to finish chances. Though Tuchel’s team has so far been able to get by with an all-around improvement in almost all areas of the pitch, the final strike remains strangely allusive. It barely bears mentioning, but Hakim Ziyech’s opener was hardly a clinic in getting the ball in the back of the net. It was a ‘don’t fluff your lines’ kind of finish, which always gives you a chance, but doesn’t speak to any kind of forthcoming change in finishing fortunes.
Indeed, Emerson’s tie-ending second was notable in this sense if only for the fact that there were no real lines for the Italian to fluff. Deep in injury time and coming off the back off roughly fifteen similar situations squandered with predictable ease, the left-back had carte blanche to thwack it row z and duly found the net for just his second goal in a Chelsea shirt. Hardly the stuff to pin your goal scoring hopes and dreams on.
Which is where Herr Havertz comes back into the fold. In full flow, the German can be as devastating a finisher as there can be. No, he’s not the kind of all-out, all-firing number nine that Stamford Bridge is so used to serenading in times of splendor that it’s become synonymous with success itself.
But if these kinds of performances continue, and the youngster is able to further improve his chemistry and comfort in the side under the guidance of trusty Thomas Tuchel, then more goals will surely follow. And with that, more glory.