Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Chelsea 2-0 Borussia Dortmund (2-1 agg.): Talking points as Chelsea overturn deficit to secure Champions League progress

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Not much has gone right for Chelsea this season, despite the huge investments of the last two transfer windows. But on Tuesday evening, many things did, as the London Blues beat Borussia Dortmund at Stamford Bridge in the second leg of their clash in the round of 16 of the Champions League, booking a place in the next round despite losing the first leg.

It was Raheem Sterling who took advantage of a scramble inside the Dortmund box to break the deadlock in the 43rd minute, and Kai Havertz who took the same penalty twice to finally score in the 53rd.

Benfica have made it into the quarterfinals as well, having destroyed Club Brugge in Belgium by 1-5 after winning the first leg in Lisbon by 2-0.

Controversies

It’s hard to start talking about this game with anything other than the moments preceding Chelsea’s second goal, the one that swung the whole tie in their favour.

About five minutes into the second half, the home side were attacking from the left flank and Ben Chilwell aimed a cross into the box, catching Dortmund right-back Marius Wolf in the hand. Referee Danny Makkelie initially stayed quiet, but having been instructed to check the situation on the pitch-side screen, he changed his mind, blew his whistle while displaying the VAR signal, and pointed to the spot.

This decision was quite controversial in itself. There can be no doubt about the ball hitting Wolf’s hand or that his arm wasn’t quite stuck to his torso, or that the contact significantly changed the trajectory of the ball in a manner detrimental to Chelsea’s chances of scoring, but the slow-motion replay also showed that the Dortmund defender had actually turned his heat away to avoid getting hit in the face when Chilwell fired his cross attempt. In other words, there can be no talk of intention to play the ball with his hand, and the old debates about the defenders being forced to approach their opponents with their hands behind their backs to avoid such incidents should be dug up and cleared up by the football authorities once and for all.

But the issues didn’t end there. Havertz stepped up to take the penalty and hit the post, and Dortmund midfielder Salih Ozcan cleared the box. But as Haverz stared in disbelief in what he himself saw as an opportunity gone to waste, Makkelie got another call from the VAR room and was told that the penalty should be retaken due to an encroachment by Ozcan.

Yes, Ozcan was among the players who entered the box before Havertz had kicked the ball, but the first to do so appeared to have been Chelsea’s Chilwell. However, the call is explained by the recommendation to the referees in the game to take notice first and foremost of the player that got to the ball first after the rebound. Therefore, only Ozcan was declared an offender, and Havertz got another chance to shoot from the spot.

There’s all sorts of questions around this situation and others like it. Apparently, Makkelie had obeyed the laws of the game, but the sense of the laws and recommendations being so framed is, quite frankly, difficult to understand. Encroachment is encroachment, and it only makes sense if the player who enters the box first – in this case Chilwell – is penalized.

Be that as it may, Havertz made no mistake at the second time of asking, and there’s nothing left for anyone at Dortmund to do but to accept the cruel reality. More than six minutes passed between the perceived handball by Wolf and Kavertz scoring from the second attempt.

After the final whistle, Marc Cucurella added another debatable moment to the mix. Having waited for Emre Can to approach him to shake hands, he obviously felt the need to say something which triggered a notable change of expression from the Germany international. Jude Bellingham stood nearby and while Can is experienced enough not to let anger get the better of him, the teenager reacted hotly and shoved Cucurella away. As might have been expected at that point, others, most notably Chelsea players Kalidou Koulibaly and Enzo Fernandez, stepped in and stood between the two, and Cucurella took his chance to continue taunting Bellingham from behind his larger teammates until Fernandez dragged the former Brighton left-back away.

There have always been players quick to taunt opponents after beating them and unfortunately, there is no mechanism that can force them to face any consequences for it. As a rule, only those who react violently to such provocation are punished. But professional athletes at this level, not to mention grown men, should know better.

The game

Looking at the game itself, Chelsea arguably deserved their triumph. Dortmund traveled to London with their attacking ranks seriously depleted, and it seemed for a long time that head coach Edin Terzic had planned for his team to keep the ball for as long as possible (they had over 60% possession between the first and the final whistle), while not heading towards the Chelsea goal too rashly. After all, they came to Stamford Bridge one goal ahead.

Chelsea, however, played the exact opposite way, and obviously didn’t care too much about possession. Being keen to reach level ground as soon as possible, they pushed the ball towards their attacking line whenever possible and without hesitation, and they had several highly promising situations before Sterling finally got them there with a little more than two minutes of the first half left. Havertz hit the post from the edge of the box and even had a brilliant strike disallowed for Sterling being offside in the buildup in the 38th minute. Soon after, Koulibaly failed to put the ball in the gaping net from a few yards, and Chilwell sent a shot from a very good position far into the stands.

But even so, it has to be said that luck certainly played its part for Graham Potter’s team and their passage to the next round. The controversies around the second-half penalty have already been covered here, but Sterling’s opener saw a share of good fortune too. The former Manchester City winger actually missed the ball at first, but it somehow stayed within his reach. What Sterling did extremely well there was taking advantage of a lack of determination from Borussia captain Marco Reus, who stood in front of him and probably feared committing a foul, to earn a second swing at the ball which resulted in the breaking of the deadlock.

After the first goal, Dortmund started showing signs of waking up, and in the first-half stoppage time, only a last-gasp intervention from Chilwell stopped Raphael Guerreiro from equalizing. Five minutes after the penalty and the second goal, Bellingham missed a great chance to score from just outside the six-yard box. In the 72nd minute, defender Niklas Sule fired a shot from range that had Kepa Arrizabalaga at full stretch before whizzing past the wrong side of the post.

Chelsea threatened on the counterattack a few times and with 15 minutes left on the clock, Sterling was ruled narrowly offside again as he ran in behind and squared for substitute Conor Gallagher to score.

Looking ahead

The questions for Chelsea now are, can they go all the way in this competition? Or can they at least use this triumph as motivation, as a confidence boost, ahead of the crucial final stretch of their Premier League campaign?

Potter is, of course, the man expected to find the answers. A lot of money has been spent on team reinforcements recently, and for all the talk of the club fully trusting the former Brighton man, the pressure is mounting. As things stand, the Blues are in 10th place with 34 points, 11 less than Tottenham Hotspur in fourth. In all honesty, they probably won’t finish in the top four, in which case the only way for them to play in the Champions League in 2023/24 is to win it this season.

On the other hand, Dortmund trail Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga table on goal-difference and though it will leave scars, the pain and the anger of this defeat will surely push them hard in the title race, particularly with no more Champions League matches to play this term to bring distraction.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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