Relief for Graham Potter, and maybe the release? It is possible this 2-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund could be looked back on as the game where it all changed, as so much finally went the beleaguered manager’s way. Chelsea didn’t just score, but scored twice, marking the first time they had two goals in a game in 2023. Much more importantly, it was exactly what they needed to put them into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, in what undoubtedly represents his first big feat as manager here.
That might seem a bit much for a club who should be used to this level, but that’s how bad it was getting, and why this will feel all the more satisfying. You could even say Potter is now on a roll. This 2-0 also marked the first time his side have won successive games since October, and it was certainly his biggest victory. The only game that comes close was Milan away.
Jude Bellingham, meanwhile, didn’t yet look close to the Champions League knock-out matchwinner he will inevitably become, contriving to somehow miss the best chance of the game. Potter would no doubt feel relief it was for once the opposition suffering that. Part of the issue for Dortmund, though, was they had so little else.
That made Kai Havertz’s display all the more influential, as he offered so many touches and moments that Dortmund just couldn’t match.
It was the German that duly got the winning goal, albeit in a moment that seemed to sum up so much as he first missed the penalty and then had to wait for a retake.
Chelsea were at least enjoying the feel of the ball hitting the back of the net again. That was something else that had got that bad.
The build-up to the first goal was almost like a comedy bit, as if the sketch was to come up with ever more elaborate ways to not score. It was remarkable. There was first of all the visualisation of the entire problem as Sterling ran onto a through ball and couldn’t seem to make up his mind what to do. It was just as well the moment was settled for him as he was ruled offside. Beyond that, Sterling also shot straight at Alexander Meyer when clean through, Kalidou Koulibaly somehow missed the ball before later blocking a goalbound shot and Havertz hit the post. When the German first had the ball in the net, through a brilliant volley, that was still off the frame of the goal and still offside.
It was Schrodinger’s goal, at once looking like it was about to come but also like it would never come. Even when the moment of delivery itself involved a diversion, and the sense it just wouldn’t happen. Sterling was presented with the chance to just smash it but initially kicked air, before recovering to drive it into the roof of the net. That was the type of unthinking and uncomplicated force it was going to take.
It was also what Chelsea deserved, in what was probably their best spell of football under Potter so far. There were real moments of quality within that, too, not least from Havertz. It was his Dennis Bergkamp-style touch that started the move for the goal, right down to the question over whether he meant it. He deserved the benefit of the doubt.
That was to be the case with the next decisive moment. Just after half-time, Marius Wolf handled a cross in the box.
Chelsea’s issues hadn’t completely gone away, as they were symbolically made to wait for the penalty and then the goal. Twice.
When it was given, Havertz stalled his run to clip the post, in what would itself have been an almost cruel joke to set their problems in front goal right back. Instead, we perhaps had another indication Potter’s luck is turning. Scores of Dortmund and Chelsea players had encroached, leading referee Danny Makkelie to rule that play had been materially affected.
Havertz got a second chance, and went for almost the exact same penalty. This one, however, was just inside the post.
Chelsea were in an unusual position, and just because of the number of goals. For once, they didn’t have to chase a game. They instead had a lead to protect, which Potter’s approach actually seemed more suited to.
It was notable how Dortmund created so little in that spell, bar one big chance straight after Havertz scored, that arguably sapped their resolve. It was all the worse that it came from their biggest current star.
That was one of the issues. Bellingham looked like he was playing a lot of this game as if he wanted to be the decisive player. It meant he had the decisive miss. One loose Dortmund attack fell to him just yards from goal, but the midfielder somehow passed it wide.
Chelsea had at last been the team with the conviction. The effect of this can’t be overstated, as Potter now has the landmark of that quarter-final. They might not have got there in the most emphatic manner but they are there and so, for now, is the manager.