Kai Havertz’s stunner against Salzburg sends Chelsea into knockout stages | Champions League

If it is true that teams embody their manager’s personality, then perhaps it is no surprise that Chelsea exuded calm when their hopes of cruising into the last 16 of the Champions League were placed in doubt by a thrilling surge from RB Salzburg.

The fightback had come out of nowhere, Junior Adamu sending the Red Bull Arena wild by cancelling out Mateo Kovacic’s early strike, and for a fleeting moment it was tempting to wonder if Graham Potter would stand charged of overthinking his tactics. A free, fluid system with Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic as wing-backs suddenly felt a little too cavalier. Chelsea had called all the shots in the first half and now, with a buoyant crowd roaring Salzburg on, an upset was on the cards.

Yet Chelsea drowned out the noise. They regained their lead thanks to a magnificent goal from Kai Havertz and, while the second half was a bruising battle at times, could celebrate winning Group E with a game to spare in the end.

Potter had certainly made things interesting by responding to his team’s defensive injuries by picking a lineup that featured Jorginho screening the back three, Havertz supporting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front, and Pulisic and Sterling in unfamiliar roles.

It felt as if it was a way of dealing with Chelsea’s creative issues – as Potter explained, the idea behind Sterling’s positioning was to exploit Salzburg’s narrow 4-3-2-1 system – and the early signs were promising. There was an immediate chance for Havertz, who was denied by Philipp Köhn after a poor backpass from Bernardo, and a wasteful touch from Aubameyang after a deft pass from Conor Gallagher.

There was Gallagher offering incision on his first start in Europe and a flexibility to the overall approach encapsulated by Marc Cucurella stepping up from left centre-back, as well as Havertz and Sterling taking the opportunity to swap positions at times.

Chelsea ran Salzburg ragged at times. The hosts struggled to break out of their half, with their threat limited to tame drives from long range, and it was not a surprise when they fell behind in the 23rd minute. A cross from Gallagher caused problems and Havertz forced a desperate tackle from Maximilian Wöber, whose clearance ran to Kovacic. The midfielder’s swiped finish, a left-footed drive that left Köhn rooted to the spot, swerved high into the net and was hardly that of a player who had not scored since 2 January.

Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea scores the opening goal during the Champions League match against Salzburg.
Mateo Kovacic opens the scoring for Chelsea in the first half. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

But Potterball always throws up surprises. Chelsea soon opened Salzburg up again, Sterling drifting inside to start a one-touch sequence that led to Kovacic releasing Havertz. The only missing element was the finishing touch from Aubameyang, whose shot was blocked by Köhn.

The visitors were creating chances at will. Havertz and Aubameyang went close with headers and the only disappointment for Chelsea was that they had only scored once during an opening period of utter dominance.

It had ended with Sterling playing in Aubameyang, who was thwarted by Köhn again. Chelsea’s profligacy gave Salzburg hope. Matthias Jaissle’s side were far more aggressive in the second half, which finally gave them a platform to hurt a defence weakened by injuries to Reece James, Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly.

The equaliser was a tactical disaster for Chelsea when it arrived in the 48th minute. Wober was able to surge down the left when Salzburg broke, capitalising on Pulisic’s lack of expertise at right wing-back, and the resulting cross exposed further cracks. It curved beyond Cucurella, who was outnumbered at the far post, and with Sterling nowhere to be seen on the cover Adamu was free to cushion his finish past Kepa Arrizabalaga.

To Chelsea’s credit, though, there was no panic. Aubamayeng sped through the middle, but was frustrated by Amar Dedic. Jorginho had a header hacked off the line. Eventually Havertz produced a moment of brilliance, collecting a pass on the edge of the area, shifting the ball on to his left foot and bending a superb shot in off the underside of the bar.

Job done? Not quite. Salzburg threatened another equaliser when Benjamin Sesko, who was on for Luka Susic, turned Trevoh Chalobah and tested Arrizabalaga with a rasping shot. Then Arrizabalaga was beaten to a long punt by Strahinja Pavlovic, whose header was shovelled away by Thiago Silva.

Recognising the need for more solidity, Potter introduced Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic, César Azpilicueta for Pulisic and Armando Broja for Aubameyang. It was just about enough to get Chelsea over the line.

Loftus-Cheek hopes Chelsea form can spark late run for World Cup spot | Chelsea

Ruben Loftus-Cheek has revealed his relief at finally being fit enough to become a regular starter for Chelsea and has admitted it would mean the world to him if he makes a late run into England’s squad for Qatar.

The Chelsea midfielder has taken a while to regain his form after sustaining a serious achilles injury in 2019 and he has needed mental toughness to overcome some challenging periods. Loftus-Cheek knuckled down during the recovery process and he is starting to build on the promise he showed as a youngster.

The 26-year-old, who is in line to start when Chelsea seek to secure their place in the last 16 of the Champions League by beating RB Salzburg on Tuesday, has made 14 appearances in all competitions this season and has a chance to regain his England spot. Loftus-Cheek is well known to Gareth Southgate, who took him to the 2018 World Cup, and his form has boosted his hopes of going to Qatar.

Loftus-Cheek said: “It would be amazing. It would mean a lot. Going into the 2018 World Cup you see your trajectory go upwards and to be at the next World Cup if everything goes well. A lot has happened in that time and I am just happy and grateful that I am fit and healthy and playing football now consistently.

“If I go to the World Cup it would mean the world – but that is not at the forefront of my mind now. It would be selfish to think about my personal aspirations rather than the club at the moment.”

Loftus-Cheek, whose contract expires in 2024, won the last of his 10 caps during a friendly win against USA four years ago. Yet Southgate likes him and Graham Potter believes the Chelsea academy graduate would be an asset for England.

“He has really impressed me on and off the pitch,” the Chelsea head coach said. “He clearly needs a good fitness level to carry his body around the pitch but the quality is there. He is putting himself into the situation that he is one of the players Gareth is looking at.”

Graham Potter and Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Loftus-Cheek has impressed Chelsea’s new head coach Graham Potter. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

Loftus-Cheek experienced relegation from the Premier League when he was on loan at Fulham during the 2020-21 season. He admitted that he has had to be strong to deal with the disappointment of his body letting him down.

“The toughest side has been the mental side to it,” he said. “Even though I have had to put a lot of energy and work into the gym to get back to how I am feeling, the mental side of it – staying focused and diligent – and having the belief to get back to where I was, was the hardest thing.”

Loftus-Cheek revealed that a conversation with Andy Murray was helpful last summer. “I went to see him train and play at Surbiton,” he said. “I am a big fan of tennis. We had a chat while the Laver Cup was on. It was good to see how he sees himself and his career, and the injuries that hindered him through it. He had a big one with his hip. It was a good chat to compare our careers and injuries have been a big part.”

Loftus-Cheek said he is feeling the “strongest, fittest and quickest I have been” since his achilles injury. “Over my career I have had injuries but I have always tried to find out what my body needs,” he said. “I have built up a library of things I need to do to feel good. That has taken time but I feel I know my body.”

Part of Loftus-Cheek’s appeal to Southgate may be that he has occasionally filled in at right wing-back for Chelsea. England have problems on the right, with Reece James and Kyle Walker major doubts to go to Qatar.

Chelsea, who will win Group E if they beat Salzburg, have travelled to Austria without N’Golo Kanté, James, Kalidou Koulibaly and Wesley Fofana. Potter said Koulibaly’s knee injury is not serious.

Potter also backed Marc Cucurella after a difficult start to life at Chelsea. The left-back, a £62.5m summer signing from Brighton, struggled against Manchester United last weekend and has been substituted early in each of his last three appearances.

“He’s had a couple of issues, in terms of a bit of illness,” Potter said.

“He’s been on antibiotics but he’s a lot lot better. The reason for Manchester United was purely tactical from a need to get an extra body in midfield. He was the one that came out probably because of all the other things that have been happening for him. He was a little bit unlucky there. He’s ready to fight for the team, he’s ready to play. He’s a resilient character, a really good person. He’ll show his quality.”

Potter warned Chelsea not to take Salzburg lightly. “Two wins against Milan have helped the situation for us,” he said. “We’re not celebrating, we need more points. We’re expecting a really tough game.”