Kai Havertz’s stunner against Salzburg sends Chelsea into knockout stages | Champions League

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If it is true that teams embody their manager’s personality, then perhaps it is no surprise that Chelsea exuded calm when their hopes of cruising into the last 16 of the Champions League were placed in doubt by a thrilling surge from RB Salzburg.

The fightback had come out of nowhere, Junior Adamu sending the Red Bull Arena wild by cancelling out Mateo Kovacic’s early strike, and for a fleeting moment it was tempting to wonder if Graham Potter would stand accused of overthinking his tactics.

A fluid system with Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic as wing-backs suddenly felt too cavalier. Chelsea had called all the shots in the first half and now, with the crowd roaring on Salzburg, trouble was brewing.

Not for long, though. If one quality has typified Chelsea under Potter it is their poise. They made their superior class tell by hitting back with a magnificent goal from Kai Havertz and, while the second half was fraught at times, in the end they could celebrate winning Group E with a game to spare. “It’s not easy to win here,” said Potter, who remains unbeaten since replacing Thomas Tuchel last month. “Our response to 1-1 was really good.”

It was the kind of decisive reaction that had proved elusive when Potter’s first taste of life at Chelsea, as well as this competition, had come in a 1-1 draw with Salzburg six weeks ago. They have recovered well from taking one point from their first two games, crushing victories against Milan reviving their momentum, and given the intensity of the schedule Potter admitted that it will be a boost to rest some weary limbs against Dinamo Zagreb next week. “To go through like we have is fantastic for everybody,” he said.

Potter had certainly made things interesting by responding to his team’s defensive injuries by picking a lineup that featured Jorginho screening the back three, Havertz supporting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front, and Pulisic and Sterling in unfamiliar roles.

It was a way of addressing Chelsea’s creative issues – the idea behind Sterling’s positioning was to exploit Salzburg’s narrow 4-3-2-1 system – and the early signs were promising. There was a chance for Havertz, who was denied by Philipp Köhn, and a wasteful touch from Aubameyang after Conor Gallagher played him through.

Gallagher was impressive on his first start in Europe, offering incision from midfield, and Chelsea’s flexibility ran Salzburg ragged at times. It was not a surprise when the opener arrived in the 23nd minute. Gallagher’s cross caused problems and Havertz forced a desperate tackle from Maximilian Wöber, whose clearance ran to Kovacic. The midfielder’s finish, a left-footed drive that left Köhn rooted to the spot, swerved high into the net and was hardly that of a player who had not scored since 2 January.

Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea scores the opening goal during the Champions League match against Salzburg.
Mateo Kovacic opens the scoring for Chelsea in the first half. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

But Potterball always throws up surprises. Chelsea soon opened Salzburg again, Sterling drifting inside to start a one-touch sequence that led to Kovacic releasing Havertz. The only missing element was ruthlessness from Aubameyang, whose shot was blocked by Köhn.

The visitors were creating chances at will. Havertz and Aubameyang had headers saved and the only disappointment for Chelsea was they scored only once during the opening period. It had ended with Sterling playing in Aubameyang, who was thwarted by Köhn again. Chelsea’s profligacy emboldened Salzburg. Matthias Jaissle’s side were far more aggressive in the second half and finally started to hurt a defence weakened by injuries to Reece James, Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly.

The equaliser was a tactical disaster for Chelsea. Wöber surged down the left, capitalising on Pulisic’s inexperience at right wing-back, and the full-back’s cross exposed further cracks. It curved beyond Cucurella, who was outnumbered at the far post, and with Sterling nowhere to be seen on the cover Adamu cushioned his finish past Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Yet Chelsea refused to panic. Amar Dedic frustrated Aubameyang. Jorginho’s header was hacked clear. Eventually Havertz collected a pass on the edge of the area, shifted the ball on to his left foot and bent a superb shot in off the underside of the bar.

Job done? Not quite. Salzburg threatened again when Benjamin Sesko, who was on for Luka Susic, turned Trevoh Chalobah and tested Arrizabalaga with a rasping shot. Then Arrizabalaga was beaten to a long punt by Strahinja Pavlovic, whose header was shovelled away by Thiago Silva.

Recognising the need for more energy and solidity, Potter introduced Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic, César Azpilicueta for Pulisic and Armando Broja for Aubameyang. It was just about enough to get Chelsea over the line.

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