Thomas Tuchel was his usual animated self on the touchline during Chelsea’s win over Lille
Silva’s gold standard
It was late in the second half of Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Lille that the French side launched a counter-attack. Antonio Rudiger was caught out of position, Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso were up the pitch. It was a key moment in the Champions League Round of 16 tie.
Lille’s attackers outnumbered Chelsea’s defenders three to two, but one of those in blue was Thiago Silva. The 37-year-old hadn’t put a foot wrong throughout and that wasn’t going to change despite Lille’s momentary numerical advantage.
As the Brazilian rushed back towards his penalty area, he kept his eye on Burak Yılmaz, the man in possession, but made sure to glance over his shoulder to survey the scene.
Once he spotted Andreas Christensen, there was a quick short instruction delivered to the Dane as to where to position himself for the incoming cross.
Silva then set himself and, sure enough, the ball ended at the feet of the Chelsea defender who was able to intercept. It was one of 12 occasions the Brazil international won possession, the most he has ever done in a Champions League match.
It has become a little easy for Chelsea supporters to take Silva for granted. He is undoubtedly one of the best centre-backs to have played for the club, a man who makes defending appear disarmingly effortless. Silva never tends to rush. He never needs to sprint. He is always in control.
That Chelsea have already ensured he is tied down to a contract for the 2022/23 season speaks volumes. Silva will turn 38 years old in September but has shown no sign of a decline. If anything, he is only getting better.
Few could have truly envisioned Silva having such a significant impact at Stamford Bridge when he joined the club on a free transfer having left Paris Saint-Germain. His signing is one of the best of the Roman Abramovich era and perhaps even beyond that.
Chelsea are lucky to have him.
Tuchel lays down challenge
Chelsea have proved themselves the team for the big occasion under Thomas Tuchel. So it was no great surprise the Blues delivered their best performance for several weeks on the Champions League’s return.
There was an energy to Chelsea’s display that has largely been absent since the turn of the year, and an ambition to take risks and not simply play safe passes.
It resulted in Kai Havertz breaking the deadlock inside the opening eight minutes. Yes, his header came from a corner but it was one the German had won moments earlier after Chelsea flooded forward having reclaimed the ball.
Tuchel wasn’t entirely happy, however. Marcos Alonso bore the brunt of the German’s anger in the opening period having twice let Johnathan Bamba escape his clutches. After the break, Tuchel let out a roar of “Azpi!” after Chelsea skipper Cesar Azpilicueta had not fully committed to a challenge by the touchline.
This is Tuchel. He is a head coach that continues to strive for perfection, something which is near-impossible to achieve in the competitive environment that is top-level sport.
“We had very strong periods. For example, the first ten minutes. At the moment we also have, in the same games, periods where it’s totally gone from one second to another; easy ball loses, a lack of fluidity, bad decision making.
“Then we recover from it and have a strong phase again. This is a bit the story at the moment, but there were very good things in it. If we can maybe keep it up at the level and make the good minutes longer and a bit more consistent, this is maybe the next step.”
So the challenge has been laid down by Tuchel. Chelsea’s players will have the chance to rise to it on Sunday in the Carabao Cup final against Liverpool.
Lukaku given Chelsea protection
Tuchel’s call to drop the Belgian for the visit of Lille proved the right one. Not only did Chelsea rediscover their attacking verve in the absence of Lukaku, but Havertz thrived upon the responsibility of leading the forward line.
Lukaku, signed in the summer from Inter Milan for £97.5million, didn’t even make it off the bench. Nor did he undertake the post-match workout with the other unused substitutes. The closest he got to the pitch was when he warmed up on the touchline in the second period.
That will not always be the case, however. Lukaku will return to the Chelsea side at some point, he is simply too big a financial investment to write off. But Tuchel’s decision to take him out of the side against Lille was the right one, for both the team and for the striker.
“It was not the moment after the [Crystal Palace] match where everybody was focused on the few touches that he had to put him right into the next fire,” Tuchel explained. “It was the moment to take a step back. That was the decision and that’s it.”
Lukaku was also backed to rediscover his best at Chelsea after the game by Azpilicueta, who has seen other strikers struggle during his ten years at Stamford Bridge.
Speaking to football.london after the game, he said: “We can’t forget Romelu is a very important player for us – at the Club World Cup, he scored two goals, one in the semi-final and one in the final.
“In the last game, the team performance maybe was not our greatest but we won and we want to improve our game. Romelu, I have no doubts, is an important player for us.
“The manager made the decision [against Lille] to have him on the bench and play other players, but he will be the first one who will want to show his qualities and I don’t doubt he will be a key player for us. Romelu will show his ability straight away, of course”