N’Golo Kanté steals show for Chelsea but strikers still lack cutting edge | Barney Ronay
How do you kill that which cannot be killed? How do you stop the white-shirted spectre from rising once again as a Champions League semi-final reaches its decisive final moments? Just a thought. But sticking the ball in the net might be a start.
On a glorious, occasionally excruciating night at Stamford Bridge Chelsea simply ran right through Real Madrid, with N’Golo Kanté a commanding, decisive presence. Frankly they should have won this game 6-0. Madrid looked gone after 20 minutes, an ageless team grown old, unable to cope with Chelsea’s power and spring.
Instead the greatest point of tension was Chelsea’s battle with their own weirdly blunted attacking edge. Enter, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, the most bafflingly raw and coltish £120m attacking duo you’ll ever see, who spent the night parading their own unique blend of sublime approach play combined with hilariously fretful attempts to apply the decisive touch.
There is something classically comical about the Werner-Havertz double act. They don’t look frightening: a scattergun inside-outside forward and his gangling, fine-featured friend, a 20-year-old marvel of skill and technique, with the diffident air of a minor Jane Austen character.
Time and again, Werner and Havertz seemed about to kill these vampiric old meringues off for good, only to drop the stake, misplace the garlic, fumble hopelessly for the silver bullet. It was gripping theatre in itself, although perhaps not for Thomas Tuchel who spent much of the night flailing his arms in a pantomime of exasperation. Manchester City are unlikely to be this forgiving.
Tuchel had made great play of going out to win this game, and duly sent out a starting XI with five defenders and two defensive midfielders. This shouldn’t be confused with a defensive approach. It is just the way Tuchel wants to win right now in this season where control has been his priority.
Sergio Ramos was back for Madrid and led his teammates out looking pumped, ripped and shredded, radiating that familiar impudent menace. Even the Ramos look is somehow even more super-evil these days, with the gaffer-tape headband, devout-looking beard, and the air of a suave international jewel thief turned charismatic yogic cult leader.
But that was pretty much the high point for Madrid, the only moment where that pure white regal theatre seemed to generate any electricity. Madrid owned the opening 10 minutes. After which they were harried into the ground by a Chelsea team led by Kanté, the outstanding player on the pitch.
Early progress came down the left side, with Ben Chilwell fearlessly overlapping. Werner had the ball in the net from a Chilwell cross, but had already dallied offside, showing in that moment all the seasoned professional smarts of the under-9s B team reserve centre-forward.
Chelsea took the lead on 28 minutes. Kanté helped make the goal, producing a piece of improvised skill that involved, most importantly, the erasure of Ramos en route to goal. As the ball ran across his body Kanté touched it too far ahead, then flicked on the burners to reel it back in.
Ramos stepped out, lacked the agility to intercept, and was left whirling unhappily, the game suddenly behind him. Kanté skipped forward and played in Havertz. At which point Havertz produced the most gloriously unnecessary dink over Thibaut Courtois – not a scuff or a clip but a moon ball, a huge rearing thing, like a plastic supermarket football caught in the wind. What technique! What skill! What pointless technique and skill! Havertz beat the keeper but also the goal, the ball clanging up off the bar. Happily for Chelsea, Werner was there to nod it in on the goal-line.
By now Chelsea knew they could do this again and better still Madrid knew it too. Moments later Ramos was booked at an attacking corner, raising his hand to punch-slap César Azpilicueta to the ground, which is, like, against the rules.
Madrid were breathing heavily by half-time, bothered by this solid blue substance sitting, those sudden long-striding counters. After the break the chances just kept coming. Havertz flicked a header on to the bar, then went gliding in on goal, only to see his elegant little side-foot finish, a pretty, fun, delicate thing – Why Kai? Why? – well saved by Courtois.
And with 84 minutes gone Madrid were finally euthanised out of this tie. Again the goal was made by Kanté as he sniped into the area and picked just the right pass, allowing Christian Pulisic to square for Mason Mount to score.
Mount had been eager rather than eye-catching. But this was his moment, the Chelsea kid, scoring against Real Madrid on his home pitch, and living not just the dream, but a scarcely credible version of the dream.
At the end of which Chelsea have once again reached the final of the Champions League while burning though managers, players, formations, ideas, combinations.
There is an astonishing momentum, an indissoluble winning quality to this modern Chelsea entity, which seems to pass on through each iteration. Here it was embodied best by Kanté, who picked away at, then finally unravelled the Madrid midfield.
No doubt Tuchel will spend his nights from here to the end of May fretting over the wild, fun freewheeling nature of his attack. But it is a considerable achievement already for the halfway-stage manager. They will, though, require a scalpel not a butter knife in Istanbul.