Sometimes football is Crystal Palace 1 Chelsea 4 – all swashbuckling adventure and luxury goals by Kai Havertz. And sometimes football is Chelsea 2 Porto 1 on aggregate, with the defenders standing deep and tall, N’Golo Kante throwing himself like a fire blanket on the midfield and Kai Havertz almost getting his head taken off by Pepe’s elbow in the third minute. Both of these footballs have their value.
If Saturday’s elegant and pointed destruction of Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park had been all about steaming forwards at overwhelming pace, then Tuesday’s victory on aggregate was all about sitting back and doing the sponge-work. Thanks to our domineering performance in the first leg, we had put Porto in a position where they had no option but to throw themselves into attack (and into Kai Havertz’s ear) from the start, and, in a brilliantly organised response, our defence contained them like Tupperware. It was a practically unblemished demonstration, over the two legs, of what the pundits like to call ‘game management’ and what the rest of us generally refer to using the slightly less pretentious term ‘winning’.
Holding out for 0-0 at the final whistle would have made it perfect, of course. But I think we can all agree: if you’re going to concede a goal, let it be a) in the dying seconds of time-added-on when the team you’re playing against needs two or three, really, for it to be of any use to them in the long-term; and b) a goal of world-class, competition-winning audacity featuring an overhead kick that, at least 999 times out of a thousand, would either end in the stands, an air-shot or tears. And without fear of contradiction we can assert that Porto’s goal on Tuesday night qualified on both those grounds, so fair enough.
Consequently, we now advance to our eighth appearance in a Champions League semi-final, a proud record in this competition which no other English club can match. Yes, it’s a shame that quite so many of those ties have been against Liverpool (three). But at least it’s not going to be four, which it could easily have been but for the intervention of Real Madrid, and which would have been more than a little depressing.
And that’s nothing against Liverpool, by the way. It’s simply that I agree with Thomas Tuchel that national ‘derbies’ in Europe aren’t especially what one goes to all the trouble of getting into the Champions League for – that, for an English team like us, playing against Liverpool qualifies as European competition about as much as eating a microwaved burger on your lap qualifies as enjoying a lovely meal out.
Indeed, isn’t one of the prime motivations for spending whole seasons achieving a place in Europe that one wants to escape teams like Liverpool and breathe some fresher, rarer air, if only for a little while? And while we’re on the subject, it’s equally a shame in my view that, of our Champions League finals (two), quite so many of them have been against Manchester United. But again, you can’t have everything. And thank you to Real Madrid, for playing their part towards keeping the Champions League properly European.
Resilience, flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances – these things are clearly vital for a club that’s aiming to win the big prizes. And accordingly it was heartening to see our players amply demonstrate those qualities over the 180 minutes against Porto, and over the 90 minutes against Palace.
And so onward to Saturday evening’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City at Wembley. It’s positively raining semi-finals at the moment, and, like Real Madrid in the Champions League, this one, too, has the look of a potentially tough hurdle. City, as everyone will tell you, have been invincible this season – except when they haven’t: they have lost at home to Leicester, at home to Manchester United and, just the other weekend, at home to Leeds. And they have, on other occasions, failed to beat West Ham, Liverpool, West Brom, Manchester United again, and Leeds again. So, quadruple-chasing or otherwise, history and all the statistics strongly suggest that this is a team that can be drawn with and beaten.
And the reward for doing the latter on this occasion is, of course, immense: a place in the final on 15 May when, the continued smooth easing of lockdown restrictions permitting, some spectators may actually be allowed in to watch. Probably not many spectators. And certainly not enough spectators to meet the pent-up demand we would have for tickets after all this time. Yet some spectators nevertheless.
Powerful symbolism, no question. Chelsea in what would be their 15th FA Cup final, and their eighth since the re-opening of Wembley in 2007, and in front of fans? What stronger or more uplifting indication could there be to the nation that normal service was finally resuming? Let’s make it happen – for everyone else as much as for us.