Chelsea lack No, 9 with 21 shots, 8 on target, sign potential striker Todd Boehly
It’s been a painfully familiar story for Chelsea. They lack the cutting edge to see off their opposition with no recognised No 9 to target and while this is not a new problem, it is one Graham Potter must now solve with his new-look, multi-million pound squad.
It’s clear the talent is there. Mykhailo Mudryk looks more assured with every game and Joao Felix was impressive against Dortmund on Wednesday, finding those clever pockets of space. He had a number of chances fall his way and on another night, could have scored a hat-trick.
Enzo Fernandez was far quieter and was caught out by Karim Adeyemi’s speed for Dortmund’s goal, while Chelsea’s other attack-minded players such as Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz had brief moments of quality.
The stats speak for themselves. Chelsea had 21 shots, eight on target and an xG of 2.13 but no goals to show for it. Away from the numbers, they went toe-to-toe with an in-form Dortmund in one of the most intimidating stadiums in European football, and dominated the second half.
“The performance was a big step forward for us tonight,” Potter rightly concluded, but the simple fact is that without a recognised and reliable No 9, Chelsea will continue to struggle.
But players like that are at a premium and they command the fees as such. Even the free-spending Todd Boehly cannot magic up a striker if there are none to be had
You are also left to wonder why Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was left out of the Champions League squad when goals are Chelsea’s Achilles heel.
On the plus side, Chelsea were pretty good defensively. Yes, they were left short on the counter, but by and large, they did well and it is a welcome sight to see Reece James and Ben Chilwell starting together again for the first time since October.
And the formula is quite easy really – if they Chelsea start putting a few more of those 21 chances away at the other end and keep it relatively tight at the back, they will improve their form.
But ultimately their defeat in Dortmund – while not a critical blow yet to their Champions League hopes – epitomised just how their lack of a No 9 continues to have a detrimental effect.
Borussia Dortmund did not make it through the group stages last season but they did not have the Yellow Wall in its full force back then. The decision not to enforce the installation of seats on the famous terrace for Champions League games could have an impact.
That is how it felt as they repelled Chelsea’s attacks in the second half, urging the defenders into blocks, pleading with goalkeeper Gregor Kobel to keep the opposition out. Twelfth man? That does not seem to do it justice when there are over 20,000 in the Sudtribune.
They were in position even before the players began their warm-up, a factor throughout. “It was extra loud,” said Dortmund coach Edin Terzic afterwards. “You could already feel it during the warm-up. Our supporters really knocked the ball out of the park tonight.”
A more confident team than Chelsea may well have punished Dortmund, nevertheless. They will hope to do the job themselves once in front of their own fans in the second leg in March. It would certainly be a surprise if Terzic’s side go all the way in this competition.
But the sight of Kobel taking the crowd’s applause long after the final whistle, left you wondering how much that mattered. This was not a team over-celebrating midway through a tie. Just a club revelling in that union between player and fan. The Yellow Wall restored.
Antonio Conte will rue the defensive sloppiness that allowed Brahim Diaz to score AC Milan’s winner at San Siro but there were positives for him to take from Tottenham’s 1-0 defeat too. First, that Spurs kept the tie open ahead of the second leg. And second, the performances of Pape Sarr and Oliver Skipp in his midfield.
Sarr had never previously featured in the competition. In fact, this was only the 20-year-old’s sixth appearance for Spurs in any competition. But together with Skipp, a full Champions League debutant himself at 22, he did not look out of place.
The pair were thrust into action due to circumstance, of course, with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg suspended and Rodrigo Bentancur joining the injured Yves Bissouma on the sidelines when he ruptured his ACL in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Leicester in the Premier League.
But up against a vastly more experienced midfield duo of Sandro Tonali and Rade Krunic, they competed well, using the ball tidily and, in Sarr’s case in particular, defending tigerishly.
The Senegal international made five tackles and regained possession 12 times – four more than any other player on the pitch.
“It’s nice to have the manager’s trust,” Skipp told BT Sport afterwards, before Conte added, in his own interview, the academy product and his younger team-mate had “repaid” that trust. “I’m really satisfied for both players,” added the Spurs boss.
In Hojbjerg, Conte should have at least one of his missing midfielders back for next month’s second leg in north London, but Sarr and Skipp have shown they can deliver when called upon.
“To have this kind of performances from Skippy and Sarr makes me more relaxed,” added Conte. “I know I can trust them 100 per cent.”
There was very little to get excited about at the San Siro on Tuesday night.
But AC Milan’s star forward Rafael Leao was the exception. Despite not having a decisive impact on the tie, the Portugal international managed to dazzle on Milan’s return to the Champions League knockout phases after nine years away.
Leao teased Tottenham with his quick feet and showed exactly why he’s such a wanted man. He completed the same number of dribbles (9) as every other player on the pitch combined. That is more than any player has completed in a single Champions League game this season.
Even though he takes more risks than most, Leao hardly loses the ball. Spurs only managed to dispossess him twice as he attempted a match-high 12 dribbles, double the amount of the next closest player. The ball seems to stick to his feet to the annoyance of opposition defenders, who can only resort to hacking him down.
Leao uses his large frame to good effect in the physical battle, too. No player won more duels than him on Tuesday night (13) as he kept Spurs’ vulnerable defence on the back foot.
The turgid tempo of Tuesday’s game might have driven some neutrals to a Valentine’s Day alternative, but Leao is the kind of player that will have you sticking around to watch just in case. His unpredictability leaves you feeling like something special could happen at any moment when he’s on the pitch.
The only criticism that could be levelled at Leao on Tuesday night was his hesitation to cross earlier. As soon as he started to deliver the ball into Spurs’ box, Milan were presented with two glorious chances to extend their lead and he probably should have come away with an assist.
Leao remains at an impasse with the Italian champions over a contract extension with his deal up in June 2024. Premier League clubs will almost certainly come calling if those negotiations rumbled on into the summer.
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