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With a magical stroke of Kai Havertz’s left boot, a key task has already been ticked off for Graham Potter at Chelsea. A place in the knockout stages of the Champions League has been secured with a game to spare following a thrilling 2-1 win at FC Salzburg which also saw Chelsea produce their best attacking performance of Potter’s reign. The quality of the goals from Havertz and, in the first half, Mateo Kovacic stood out among a number of slick team moves, while Chelsea having to survive a few scares at the other end added to an impressive night overall as they made sure of their progress.
It has been quite the six weeks for Potter, and it may get better tonight if results go Chelsea’s way and top spot in Group E is also confirmed ahead of the final round of fixtures. Just six weeks ago, Potter took charge of Chelsea for the first time against Salzburg, only for a 1-1 draw against the Austrian champions to leave them bottom of the group and facing an awkward European campaign. In Chelsea’s previous two draws against Brentford and Manchester United, questions were beginning to be asked of an attack that looked short of ideas, only for an empathic response to be delivered here.
It was required to end Salzburg’s 40-match unbeaten run in their home stadium and the most attacking line-up of Potter’s time in charge produced not only a plethora of chances but swift, coherent movement and passing between the talented forwards at the manager’s disposal. If it had not been for the excellent Philipp Kohn in the Salzburg goal then Chelsea could have been out of sight by half-time, but in between the excellent Conor Gallagher and Kovacic pieced it together to add further encouragement, while Thiago Silva was immense to see out Salzburg’s late siege.
Thiago Silva and Salzburg’s Samson Baidoo vie for the ball
Salzburg had shown enough in the draw at Stamford Bridge last month for Chelsea to know their mission would be far from simple. Potter must have been pleased enough with his side’s display on that occasion for the Chelsea manager to return to the same 3-1-4-2 system he previously deployed against the Austrians, although with Mason Mount rested for the first time after starting all eight matches under the former Brighton boss so far.
Chelsea’s run of clean sheets came to a dramatic end following Casemiro’s late equaliser in the 1-1 draw against United on Saturday, but it has been Chelsea’s attack that had come under the spotlight following recent performances. Apart from individual inspiration from Mount, Chelsea had struggled to find the right balance at the other end of the pitch to add to their defensive resilience. In response, Potter selected his most attacking line-up yet with Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic at wing-backs, and the results were exciting.
Yet if the thinking behind Potter’s plans was to do with structure or rotations, Chelsea’s breakthrough came through a moment of off-the-cuff magic from Kovacic. There seemed to be little danger when Havertz directed the ball towards the Croatian on the edge of the box, but Kovacic sent an off-balance shot with the outside of his left foot fading away from the goalkeeper Kohn and into the top corner. It was just his fifth Chelsea goal and was as inspired as his fourth, which was a spectacular volley against Liverpool in January.
Kohn stood no chance but the goalkeeper soon became the reason Chelsea did not have the victory secured by half-time, as well as some frustratingly familiar wasteful finishing from the visitors. Kohn made a hat-trick of saves to deny Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with the second chance a glaring opportunity following slick build-up play between Havertz and Sterling. Aubameyang took too long to get his shot away, while Havertz was also culpable after failing to beat Kohn with a free header from six yards.
Mateo Kovacic celebrates his opener for the visitors
Chelsea’s overall play was as fast and fluid as at any point in the previous eight games under Potter, but the only thing that may have stopped Chelsea fans from enjoying it completely was the slender scoreline. Salzburg had often been overwhelmed by the quality of Chelsea in the first half, but they also had their moments on the counter-attack where Potter’s team very much looked off-balance and like a side who were fielding four attackers to three defenders. There had been enough warnings by the time of Junior Adamu’s equaliser shortly after the restart, but Chelsea were punished when the forward steered Maximilian Wober’s delicious cross past Kepa.
It came shortly after the Blues had survived a VAR review for a Salzburg penalty but Chelsea did not wobble. Instead, when Havertz produced the second outstanding moment of quality to curl a brilliant shot off the underside of the crossbar, Chelsea had already created more than enough chances to lead. Havertz’s sublime finish needed to be of the highest order to beat Kohn, who had not long before denied Aubameyang again as well as Pulisic – while Aduma had cleared a Jorginho header off the line.
With the thrilling encounter still in the balance, the talented substitute Benjamin Sesko forced Kepa into a diving stop before Silva’s instincts saved Chelsea when the defender hacked a header from Strahinja Pavlovic off the line. After the quality in attack, Chelsea required grit in defence to finish the job. Facing an increasingly direct and physical bombardment from Salzburg, Silva ensured a display that began with flair finished with talk of a disciplined and professional defensive stand. This was a team performance, and perhaps the most encouraging so far from Potter’s team, to complete a remarkable turnaround in this Champions League campaign.