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Chelsea churning out results while in football limbo

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This performance wouldn’t feature in an accompanying brochure, but Chelsea‘s 2-1 win over Lille on Wednesday gave potential new owners a timely reminder of the winning machine they are lining up to buy.

The Blues weren’t particularly impressive at Stade Pierre Mauroy and appeared set for a difficult evening when Burak Yilmaz converted a 38th-minute penalty, but Christian Pulisic‘s clinical finish just before the break and a second-half effort from Cesar Azpilicueta eased them into the Champions League quarterfinals.

The draw takes place in Nyon on Friday, hours before the deadline set by New York-based merchant bank Raine Group for interested parties to table their formal offers to buy the world and European champions, valued by owner Roman Abramovich at £3 billion.

They are still buying a team competing in Europe courtesy of the sort of display that underlines their pedigree at this level: Finding a way to achieve their aim despite an underwhelming 90 minutes because they still mustered enough quality in the final third to dispatch their industrious but limited hosts.

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Preparations have not been easy. Chelsea’s last visit to this ground in October 2019 — also a 2-1 win but then in the group stage under Thomas Tuchel’s predecessor Frank Lampard — was overshadowed by a row emanating from pictures showing midfielder Ross Barkley eating a kebab and chips and arguing with a taxi driver in Liverpool a few days earlier.

Catering and travel are still issues on the agenda but with much greater urgency these days, given the restrictions imposed upon them as part of the licence granted by the UK government to continue operating in the wake of Abramovich being sanctioned for alleged links to Russia president Vladimir Putin.

The club’s travel plans for Lille were finalised prior to last Thursday’s government intervention but Tuchel had barely taken his seat in his post-match press conference before being presented with the latest difficulty, UEFA indicating a probability that Chelsea will not be able to sell tickets for the quarterfinal they had just reached as a result of Abramovich being sanctioned by the European Union on Tuesday.

“Thanks for ruining my evening,” Tuchel replied upon hearing the news, moments after celebrating with the travelling support housed in the top tier of the goal they were attacking in the second half, a moment of unity he nor they may experience for some time.

The likeable and erudite German continues to navigate a devilishly difficult path expertly in his role as part-coach, part ambassador.

New owners often want to install their own head coach but it is hard to imagine a coach negotiating this spell better than Tuchel, particularly given results have remained positive since Abramovich first hinted at a separation the day before Chelsea faced Liverpool in last month’s Carabao Cup Final.

The Blues lost that game — by the finest of margins in a penalty shootout — but have since beaten Luton Town, Burnley, Norwich City, Newcastle United and now Lille in a run which strikes at the heart of the culture fostered at the club over many years, something which long pre-dates Tuchel’s arrival.

“We are all competitors and I always experienced from day one once I was part of the family, a very competitive spirit and a very competitive club,” said Tuchel.

“Chelsea is so clear what it demands from every employee and from every player: play your role, play to the limit, live up to it and take your responsibility.

“This is what Chelsea is about and that sharpens your mentality and brings out the best in you because it is normal to do it on a daily basis. Because this mentality is installed over years and years, over the decades, that’s why it is possible that we can stay focused.

“It plays a big part in why we can produce results as we do in the moment now when things are uncertain and unstable around us — because it is already there.”

Few expected them to beat Manchester City in last season’s Champions League final and they were even more surprise winners of the competition in 2012 when changing managers halfway through the season.

Yet they kept winning. The source of Abramovich’s wealth has generated a debate about the purity of Chelsea’s success in the last two decades but nobody can deny the efficiency with which they have delivered silverware: Their haul of 21 trophies since Abramovich bought the club in 2003 is unsurpassed in England.

There was, nevertheless, a degree of passivity on show here. Tuchel took the unusual step of adopting a 3-5-2 system to accommodate an additional central midfielder, presumably to shore up central areas and help stifle Lille.

In the end, it seemed only to contribute to a pedestrian display in which they barely threatened before Jorginho, a £50 million signing, threaded a pass for Pulisic, a £57.6m signing, to combine for a moment of class Lille simply could not match.

“Champions of Europe, we know what we are,” sang the away fans, suddenly audible for the first time all night as Pulisic ended any hope of an upset.



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