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.

UEFA Champions League Preview: 11 places still up for grabs

ONLY FIVE teams have qualified so far for the last 16: Bayern, Bruges, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Napoli. So, there’s plenty to play for in matchday five and there could be a couple of high profile clubs finding their way to the Europa League.

Group A: Ajax – Liverpool; Napoli – Rangers.

Ajax, for all their European heritage, are almost out of the competition, although they will probably qualify for the Europa League. Liverpool, despite a stuttering start to the season in the Premier, thought they were finding their form when they beat Manchester City, but they had another setback and lost 1-0 against struggling Nottingham Forest. A draw for Liverpool in Amsterdam will send them through to the next stage. Napoli have already qualified, they are currently the most exciting team in Europe and their performances in Serie A and the Champions League have been impressive. Sadly, Rangers have looked out of their depth and their 7-1 humbling at home to Liverpool really summed up their experience this season.

Group B: Club Brugge – Porto; Atlético Madrid – Bayer Leverkusen

Bruges were one of the first teams to qualify for the knockout phase after winning three of their first four games. They are only the third Belgian team to reach the last 16 this century, Anderlecht (2000-01) and Gent (2015-16) were the others. Their opponents, Porto, need a win to keep some space between themselves and Atlético Madrid, but the second place in the group is likely to be decided by the meeting between these two teams on November 1 in Portugal. Leverkusen have been disappointing this season, both at home and in the Champions League, although they did beat Atlético in the last matchday.

Group C: Inter Milan – Viktoria Plzn; Barcelona – Bayern Munich

Barcelona went perilously close to elimination in the last group game against Inter, which ended 3-3. Inter know that a win against Plzn will put Barca out, regardless of how they face against group leaders Bayern. There has been much angst in Barcelona since the game with Inter, with concerns about their financial situation should they fail to qualify for the last 16. Barca have also lost ground in La Liga, despite the goals of Robert Lewandowski. Bayern, who have qualified, have been impressive in Europe, winning all four of their games and averaging three goals per game, while conceding just two goals.

Group D: Eintracht Frankfurt – Marseille; Tottenham – Sporting Lisbon

Anyone could still qualify from this group, but victories for Marseille and Tottenham could take both through. Frankfurt were unlucky to lose 3-2 at Tottenham, but they bounced back with a five-goal performance in the Bundesliga against Leverkusen. Marseille have been going well but were beaten by title rivals in France, Paris Saint-Germain. Spurs’ early season effervescence has lost a little of its fizz, with defeats against Arsenal and Manchester United, but they are still upbeat. They are particularly strong at home.

Group E: Red Bull Salzburg – Chelsea; Dinamo Zagreb – AC Milan.

This group remains quite open but the fifth matchday should start to sort things out. Chelsea, leaders of the group, are in good form under new boss Graham Potter, although their last two games have been disappointing with draws against Brentford and Manchester United. Salzburg, league leaders in Austria, faced second-placed Sturm Graz. They are still unbeaten in the Champions League group. AC Milan and Zagreb are still in the mix but a win for either will knock the loser out of contention. Milan are still chasing leaders Napoli at home and have lost just once in Serie A.

Group F: Celtic – Shakhtar Donetsk; RB Leipzig – Real Madrid.

Celtic are out of the competition, but still have feint hopes of finishing third and qualifying for the Europa League. Shakhtar, who should be too strong for them, would probably keep themselves in contention with a win in Glasgow. They recently beat big rivals Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukrainian Premier League, but everything is overshadowed by the war with Russia. RB Leipzig have turned their season around in recent weeks and have won five of their last six games. Their two wins against Celtic in the group have revitalised their Champions League campaign. Real Madrid will be a tough task as they are unbeaten in La Liga and recently beat Barcelona in El Clasico, followed by a 3-1 win against Sevilla.

Group G: Sevilla – FC Copenhagen; Borussia Dortmund – Manchester City

This round of matches will effectively be the group leadership decider and the Europa League qualifier. Dortmund host City with the top two places up for grabs. City were beaten for the first time this season when they went down 1-0 at Liverpool, but they returned to winning ways against Brighton. Liverpool prevented Erling Haaland from scoring, but the huge Norwegian will be keen to score against his old club. Dortmund, who came through two table-topping games with Bayern and Union with just one point to show for their efforts, know a win will secure their place in the last 16. Sevilla have picked up in the past few games and should be too good for a Copenhagen side who struggle to win games, although they did achieve a credible draw with City in their last Champions League fixture.

Group H: Benfica – Juventus; Paris Saint-Germain – Maccabi Haifa

Benfica have enjoyed their Champions League campaign so far and are within touching distance of the last 16. Juventus, by contrast, are almost out, although a win in Lisbon will delay the ignominy of an early exit. Juve were beaten 2-0 in their last group game in Haifa, but won the Turin derby afterwards and beat Emploi 4-0 at the weekend. Speculation is still rife about the future of coach Max Allegri. Benfica warmed up for this game with a big clash against Porto. PSG should win against Maccabi Haifa and followed up their 1-1 draw with Benfica with a 1-0 victory against old rivals Olympique Marseille. PSG may be distracted due to the continued talk of Kylian Mbappe moving in January and there are also rumours about Lionel Messi returning to Barcelona.