After all that has happened over the past week or so, all the turmoil caused by the sacking of Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea need something here. Graham Potter needed something here. This was the first experience of the new director of Champions League Bow tie, detailing to highlight his sudden rise. It will be a wild night for him.
For most of the second half, it felt as if Raheem Sterling had started the Potter era. With a roll of his buttons to place the ball and a movement from his right shoe, the winger found the far corner of the ball. Red Bull Salzburg Net, and Chelsea could feel a similar springboard to their Champions League campaign – after the shock of defeat to Dinamo Zagreb.
Salzburg had other ideas. As Potter was guiding his players with new shapes, it was a battle for cohesion and a sucker punch would arrive. Thiago Silva was a case study on how to defend, a model of composure, and hear praise from home support. Then he erred.
The ball was won by the one on the left side of the Chelsea The only defense he missed in the challenge on the substitute, Junior Adamo, and Salzburg entered. Adamo sent a low cross, Noah Okafor made his move and his shot ran into the net of Cesar Azpilicueta. Chelsea tried to recover but their late push did nothing. For Potter, there was nothing but frustration.
It was impossible to escape from the calm atmosphere that clung to the scene in the countdown to the start of setting off; The music is slow and pleasant, union cranes hanging behind one of the targets. “Rip your majesty,” read the sign.
A couple of Chelsea retirees had first come out of the tunnel to lay wreaths and there was a raucous rendition of God Save The Queen on both ends – in the absence of UEFA allowing the national anthem to be played on the PA system.
Potter’s entrance was the definition of the low key – out of necessity. Dressed in a black suit and tie, he sprinted left into his technical area, applauding briefly at all four corners of the court. The response was decent.
Potter’s first Chelsea squad included three defenders – Cesar Azpilicueta was alongside Thiago Silva – and two centre-halves, Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly, recruited over the summer at a total cost of £108.8m off the bench. Ben Chilwell joined them there.
What was noticeable since the early run was how high the linebacker, Rhys James, played on the right, allowed Mason Mount to get ahead of him and Kai Havertz to cruise from turn 10. The system was fluid. Potter wants the ball, and the confidence to play in tough situations, but Kepa Arrizabalaga nearly hit his side with a heavy pass to Jorginho on the edge of the area. Benjamin Sisko jumped to win the ball and Salzburg looked like they were inside. However, Cisco was penalized for making a minor mistake.
The movement faltered in the first half, as Salzburg endured physical combat, especially via Cisko and Strahinya Pavlovic, towering figures front and back. There was home support time to greet Potter’s predecessor, Tuchel, at 21 minutes. He had won Chelsea’s second Champions League title in 2021. They no longer have Super Tommy Tuchel but he will always have a place in their emotions. The potter must earn it.
What could have been a surprise on the pitch here? Honestly nothing. Not with Chelsea’s history nor given the events of the past week or so when the club’s new owners sacked a Champions League winning coach after three defeats this season and risked calculating a managerial rookie at this level.
Chelsea struggled to join the points before the interval, to create plenty of clear notes. Often times from Chelsea’s perspective, the final action was skewed or Salzburg got a body in the way. James ran away from Pavlovic but a cross was too far in front of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Raheem Sterling was hit in the leg on the other side but his deliveries didn’t find their target.
Chelsea’s best opening in the first half fell to Mason Mount. He flew wide from the edge of the area while Arrizabalaga had to be vigilant to keep the curler off Sesko.
Potter pinned Sterling high and wide to the left and trying to classify the formation was risky. It looked more like a 3-5-2 loss in the second half, with Mark Kokurila on the left of the defense and Mateo Kovacic as one of the top 8 players. Havertz was left to reveal the places around Aubameyang, which were within a yard of the itinerary.
When the breakthrough came, it was all about James’ drive—the theme of the evening—and Mount’s search for a cross from the right. But Salzburg will not enjoy the replay, especially the midfield, Bernardo, who mistook his kick and let the ball pass for Sterling.