Graham Potter praised Marc Cucurella after the decision to restore him to Chelsea’s defence was vindicated by a brilliant individual display against Borussia Dortmund.
The Blues reversed a 1-0 deficit from the first leg in Germany to seal a stunning Champions League fightback and hand Potter his finest night as manager at Stamford Bridge.
Cucurella had been left out of the manager’s last three matchday squads but was brought in to start in a back three with Thiago Silva and Benoit Badiashile unavailable.
Goals either side of half-time from Raheem Sterling and a re-taken penalty from Kai Havertz won it for the Blues, after they had bombarded the Bundesliga’s second-place side during a first half in which they dominated and could have been out of sight.
It was a performance that finally demonstrated the potential in the team following owner Todd Boehly’s whirlwind January transfer spend, with Joao Felix imperious in driving down the left side of Chelsea’s attack and British-record signing Enzo Fernandez in near-total control in midfield.
But it was Cucurella, whose inclusion after a difficult personal spell Potter admitted had been a risk, who rose best to the occasion with an energetic, focussed display of high pressing.
“I think Marc was man of the match,” said Potter, with UEFA in agreement as the Spaniard took the official award.
“If the result hadn’t had gone our way, I’m not sure of the consequences. I’m delighted for him.
“When you’re having a bad time like we’ve had, you accept the criticism and Marc has dealt with it well. We’ve tried to shield him a little bit and at the same time pick the moment (to bring him back).
“We thought the crowd would get behind us tonight, because it’s the Champions League. With Benoit not available, I thought he gave us some left-footed balance in the back three. Thankfully he delivered a top performance.”
Chelsea peppered Dortmund’s goal in the first period with Felix and Havertz both going close, the latter striking the post with a wicked drive late in the half.
Sterling’s goal in the 43rd minute repaid the raucous support lent by the crowd at Stamford Bridge before Havertz’s twice-taken penalty completed the turnaround, hitting the post first time but taking his second chance after Dortmund’s players encroached.
It brought much-needed breathing room for Potter, particularly following on from the unconvincing 1-0 victory against Leeds on Saturday that ended the team’s six-match winless run. This time, the performance matched the magnitude of the result.
“It was an important game, it was a special atmosphere,” said Potter. “It was a passionate evening.
“Stamford Bridge was rocking, I thought it would be. Our performance helped that. We pressed high, we tried to win some tackles. We tried to attack them and play some decent stuff, against a top team.
“It’s not just this evening. We’ve had a tough period. We had to respond against Leeds. We played a good game against Dortmund away (in the first leg) and we lost. In the moment that we’re in, no one wants to hear that we played well, had some chances and should have scored.
“We had a poor first half (losing) against Southampton and it could have spiralled into an unpleasant situation. Everybody had to stick together and suffer together and find a way through.”
Dortmund boss Edin Terzic felt the penalty awarded against his team by VAR for a handball against Marius Wolf was the call that ultimately turned the direction of the tie against his side.
“If a decision takes five or six minutes to make you know it’s not been an easy call,” said Terzic.
“I’m the manager, I’m responsible for performances. But not for the performance of the referee.
“In both legs it was very tight games. Inches decide whether you’re going to go to the next round. We’ve been unlucky in moments, but this is part of the game.
“We knew we’d have to show two top performances. Both teams deserved to go through but Chelsea scored twice, we didn’t, so we can’t complain about being out.”