Chelsea seek their first trophy of the new season on Wednesday in Belfast. It is almost an expectation that if they beat Villarreal at Windsor Park to lift the European Super Cup, it should not be their last silverware of the campaign, such is the momentum they have built up through 2021 so far.
Chelsea earned their shot at this lesser Uefa prize by seizing the second Champions League of the club’s history in May, overturning pre-match forecasts to defeat Manchester City and deliver for a new manager the most prestigious trophy available.
A reminder of how sharply Chelsea rose under Thomas Tuchel: He had taken over from Frank Lampard only 31 matches earlier with Chelsea ninth in the Premier League, behind any position that would qualify them for European football in 2021-22.
In the end, Tuchel’s revival built up enough steam that Chelsea ended up with two routes into Europe’s elite, as winners of the European Cup and as top-four finishers in England. But both were achieved by thin margins.
On the final day of the last Premier League season, a brittle Chelsea lost to Aston Villa, which meant they were dependent on results elsewhere to finish in the top four. The scoreline in Porto against City was 1-0. So was the result of the FA Cup final, when Leicester City won, putting the brakes on the Tuchel juggernaut.
Tuchel would like fewer nervy moments in the campaign ahead, which is partly why his big push, while he was enjoying the full confidence of his employers, was for a major foray into the transfer market for a pedigree centre-forward.
The rollercoaster weeks at the end of last season featured a few too many moments in which chances went unclaimed by the strikers at the sharp end of Chelsea’s often slick build-up play. Timo Werner, one of several significantly costly recruits of Lampard’s last summer of trading, was conspicuous for the number of times he worked his way into promising positions and the low ratio of actual goals for all his hard, intelligent running.
So in comes Romelu Lukaku, as close to guarantor of goals as there is, with momentum of his own from a successful season with Internazionale, familiarity with the Premier League — he has played at Manchester United, Everton and West Bromwich Albion — and with Chelsea, where he was signed as a teenager before undergoing the typical ritual for young Blues of being loaned out elsewhere.
Lukaku’s second move to Chelsea, this one at a fee of well over €100 million ($117.2m), was being finalised on Tuesday, which means he will be not involved in Belfast, denying him and Chelsea a moment of symmetry: In 2013, a 20-year-old Lukaku made his European debut for Chelsea in a Super Cup final, lost on penalties to Bayern Munich. Eight years later, his second ever European match for the club should come next month in the club’s defence of the Champions League.
By then, Tuchel will want the Belgian tuned to the vision of Mason Mount, the pinpoint service of Ben Chilwell, Reece James and Hakim Ziyech, among others, and working on the best ways to combine with Werner and Kai Havertz.
The two Germans are in the squad to face Villarreal, content that their first season in English football ended on a such a high, but aware that more is expected of them: goals, principally, from Werner; consistent impact — of the sort he showed with the winning goal in Porto — from the €80m Havertz.
Havertz, Mount and Christian Pulisic are only 22, James a year younger and Callum Hudson-Odoi still just 20. At any other club, under a relatively young manager making such an impressive start, there would be whispers of a dynasty to be developed over the long-term.
But this being Chelsea, not even a manager who has taken on the job with an apparent Midas touch can feel entirely safe. History warns Tuchel that the last time Chelsea went to a Super Cup final as Champions League holders, in 2012, they lost the game to Spanish opposition — 4-1 to Atletico Madrid — and the European Cup-winning manager, Roberto Matteo, had been sacked by the last week of November.
Villarreal are unlikely to bulldoze Chelsea as Atletico did, especially as Unai Emery’s Europa League holders are without several senior players because of delayed returns to training and Covid-19 protocols. But Emery is a canny operator in these sorts of finals.
For the Spaniards, who defeated Manchester United to clinch the Europa League, taking part in them is still a relative novelty, and, unlike Chelsea, they would not assume they are well set to collect other trophies this season.
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