The Champions League round of 16 had become something of a problem for Chelsea. No matter the opponent, no matter the coach, and no matter the group of players, the Blues continued to fall at the first hurdle of the knockout stage. In 2015 and 2016, they were dumped out by Paris Saint-Germain. In 2018, it was a Leo Messi-inspired Barcelona that eliminated Chelsea. And last term, eventual champions Bayern Munch exposed every Blues weakness to run out 7-1 winners over two legs. After the tie against Bayern – the second leg of which was played in August due to the Covid-19 pandemic – Frank Lampard spoke candidly about why Chelsea had been unable to make the Champions League quarter-finals once again.
Frank Lampard said “I think it is a work in progress, it’s not the norm for Chelsea of the last 15 years,” he said. “We have teams containing prime (Eden) Hazard and (Diego) Costa, teams containing prime (Petr) Cech, (John) Terry, (Didier) Drogba. Those teams competed for Premier League titles year on year, and reached Champions League semi-finals and finals. We know that’s not the case now.”
Lampard wasn’t wrong. Chelsea did lack top-level quality. So they went and bought some. Timo Werner was signed from RB Leipzig. Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen. Hakim Ziyech was brought in from Ajax. Knowledge and know-how was added too, with Thiago Silva joining on a free transfer having left PSG. And yet despite these additions and the experience gained by several academy graduates during the 2019/20 campaign, the Blues’ season was in danger of imploding in January.
It’s why the club opted to make the hugely unpopular decision to sack Lampard and appoint Thomas Tuchel. Bringing in Tuchel, especially mid-season, was something of a risk. The German is a hugely impressive coach but can also be a combustible character. How would he cope with a large squad which contains larger personalities? As it turns out, flawlessly. Tuchel has overseen a complete transformation at Stamford Bridge. The Blues are unbeaten in 13 matches under the 47-year-old and more impressively, they’ve only conceded two goals in that time. He’s made a young squad grow up fast. Chelsea now possess the street-smarts to win difficult games, the grit to battle to victories. There is a composure to the side too, something which was never in place under Lampard, helped by a clear tactical framework.
All those different aspects helped Chelsea cruise beyond Atletico Madrid this evening and into the quarter-finals for the first time in seven years. After coming through the opening ten minutes unscathed, it was a game – and tie – Tuchel’s side never looked like losing. Goals from Hakim Ziyech and Emerson ensured they didn’t. So onto the quarter-finals, which reaching is in itself a success. But Tuchel will want more, as will his players. And you’d have to be a brave person to bet against them at this moment in time.
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