Graham Potter and Chelsea throw down the gauntlet

THE BEAUTY of two-legged football means that spectators can experience the tension, the drama and the joy of a deficit being overturned. In this age of de facto seeding that ensures the leviathans will almost always come out on top, the whiff of uncertainty that comes with accidental or instant elimination creates a product that still enables romance and the sentiment of heart-over-head thinking. 

Football has, largely, become a business sector that demands some level of guarantee, but there is still enough jeapordy and air of a precarious game of snakes and ladders. At Stamford Bridge on March 7, Chelsea climbed a ladder while Borussia Dortmund slid down a reptilian fireman’s pole to the land of forgotten last 16 losers.

Dortmund brought thousands of fans, all of whom seemed to be taken on a military march from one part of London to another by the Metropolitan Police. Was this, by any chance, why the game was really delayed? London has become very neurotic when it comes to large groups of German fans – witness the arrival of 10,000 Köln fans at Arsenal a couple of years ago. That Chelsea, a club whose past hooligan exploits were screened on BT Sport the same evening in the nostalgic film, Poundland, should be nervous about visiting fans seems rather ironic, but no matter how strict the ferrying and frisking, the Dortmund faithful, an extraction of their famed “Yellow wall”, still managed to smuggl- in flares or smoke bombs. Only the most intensive latex-covered health screen might have found where the pyro was really being stored.

Chelsea have turned around European ties before, some of which have been cemented in the club’s folklore; Bruges 1971, Arsenal 2004, Barcelona 2005 and Napoli 2012, to name but a few. But this current Chelsea is a fragile animal compared to some of its succesors and their coach, Graham Potter is managing on a tightrope. Under the previous owner, Comrade Abramovich, Potter would have been sacked three times over and although his situation may change drastically game-by-game, there is no smoke coming from the top of Chelsea’s East Stand to signal a change in management. Just yet, that is.

Chelsea’s players, to use a well-worn football cliché, did their “gaffer” proud. Stamford Bridge also rose to the occasion, perhaps spurred-on by the voiciferous Dortmund visitors. After the club’s pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey transfer sessions, it was no surprise that six of their starting line-up represented the new recruits to Todd Boehly’s Chelsea revolution. One of them, Raheem Sterling, who has looked out-of-place this season, scored the opening goal that brought the aggregate score to 1-1 and eased some of the nerves. Sterling, along with players like Kai Havertz, Mason Mount, Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic, is said to be on his way out of Chelsea in the summer, but he showed why he has won so many England caps with that finish. What fans don’t always understand is that any club that spends money so quickly and with such abandon can also sell with the same level of impatience and speed. In other words, player turnover means player turnover.

Havertz, who hit the woodwork in the first half, also struck the upright with a penalty kick in the early exchanges in the second period. However, Auntie VAR came to the rescue for Chelsea as a cluster of yellow shirts seemed to encroach the area when the kick was being taken. Havertz tried again and this time, sent his shot just inside the post. Chelsea were now ahead on aggregate, but Dortmund had Jude Bellingham, the 19 year-old future of rock and roll football, so they couldn’t relax. Bellingham was arguably too relaxed when he spun his shot wide with the goal within easy reach in the 58th minute.

Chelsea remained in charge to win 2-1 on aggregate. You sensed the script was written that this was something of a defining moment of the season, although that could have been attributed to the “last chance” aspect of the game. They have been knocked out of both domestic cups by the same team (Manchester City) as they were last season when Liverpool beat them in both cup finals on penalties. They could – perish the thought – meet City again in the Champions League. This does hint at where currently Chelsea stand in the scheme of things, behind both these clubs, perhaps?

Over the two legs, Chelsea probably deserved to emerge triumphant, but Dortmund could also argue they might have won. They finished disappointed by the outcome, but their coach, Edin Terzić, demonstrated his class in the post-match summary, first of all congratulating the victors. According to visitors from North-Rhine Westphalia, BVB on the night were not the real Dortmund. For a start, they were without the player who scored the winning goal in the first leg, Karim Adeyemi. At home, they have done something this season that has eluded German football for quite a while, they have created competition in the Bundesliga title race. Bayern Munich and Dortmund are level on points after BVB’s eight successive league wins. They visit Munich on April 1, by which time, the league table may look very different. One thing is clear, however, Dortmund have built another compelling team.

As for Chelsea, the likeable Potter is safe for another few days. It is worth noting that when Chelsea won the Champions League for the first time in 2012, they were unfancied, and in 2021, Manchester City were expected to beat them. It isn’t always the very best team that wins the competition. It is not always the best Chelsea team that becomes European champions.

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