LONDON — It’s the dichotomy on the coronary heart of Christian Pulisic’s profession proper now that on the similar time he’s studying to not really feel the necessity to “save” the USA males’s nationwide crew, Chelsea are looking for a talisman as Romelu Lukaku continues to falter.
Pulisic revealed in an unique interview with ESPN earlier this month that he was making an attempt to launch himself from feeling he must be the matchwinner on worldwide responsibility. At Stamford Bridge, he’s thought of one in every of a number of stars, all of whom had been speculated to function in Lukaku’s shadow following his €115 million summer time transfer from Inter Milan.
But Lukaku’s detached kind led Blues boss Thomas Tuchel to omit his main striker for Tuesday’s Champions League last-16 tie in opposition to Ligue 1 facet Lille as he relied on Pulisic, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech to steer Chelsea’s assault. Ziyech got here to the fore when Lukaku went lacking at Crystal Palace on Saturday, however right here, Havertz and Pulisic struck because the Blues secured a 2-0 win that provides the defending champions a robust probability of progressing to the quarterfinals.
Lukaku’s omission got here after he registered simply seven touches in opposition to Palace, the fewest by a Premier League participant concerned for 90 minutes since data started in 2003. Havertz wanted simply 5 to open the scoring eight minutes in — and he had already had two efforts on aim by that stage.
The Germany worldwide fired over from contained in the six-yard field earlier than forcing a high quality save from Lille goalkeeper Leo Jardim moments later. From the ensuing Ziyech nook, Havertz headed Chelsea in entrance.
It took Havertz solely 13 minutes and one second to register eight touches as Chelsea produced far larger attacking cohesion in the identical 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 form employed at Palace.
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Lille knocked the ball round intelligently at instances in Chelsea’s half however by no means threatened Blues goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, with Thiago Silva imperious in defence and N’Golo Kante delivering one other exceptional all-action midfield show. The latter arrange Pulisic for the second aim 27 minutes from time, bursting via the center of the Lille defence earlier than slipping a go to the 23-year-old, who dug out a intelligent curled end previous Jardim.
Pulisic additionally defined in that latest interview how he was struggling to seek out his rhythm due a scarcity of game-time following a optimistic COVID-19 check, damage and a wrestle to interrupt into the crew. Tuesday was solely the third time he has began back-to-back matches this season, and the profit was clear in one in every of his most influential performances of the marketing campaign to date.
It might even be no coincidence that whereas this was a barely uncommon function, working as a barely deeper central attacking midfielder, it was the identical ask that was manufactured from him at Selhurst Park. That consistency is one thing he has palpably been craving, having been utilised as a false 9 and even a wing-back now and again.
Inheriting the No. 10 shirt from Eden Hazard (Willian saved it heat for a yr), a participant who carried Chelsea to glory nearly single-handedly at instances throughout his seven-year keep earlier than departing for Actual Madrid in 2019, launched him to unfeasibly excessive expectations in west London, however the inflow of big-money signings since Chelsea’s FIFA switch ban was lifted — Havertz and Lukaku each price significantly greater than the charge paid to Borussia Dortmund to safe Pulisic’s signature — now presents an opportunity of being a distinguished member of an ensemble, which appears to swimsuit Pulisic extra.
This was his sixth Champions League aim, his first at house, and an general show that can make him troublesome to drop for Sunday’s Carabao Cup last in opposition to Liverpool (11:25 a.m. ET, stream reside on ESPN+), when Tuchel hinted Lukaku may return.
“The main target was at the moment on depth, high-speed sport and in addition arduous work off the ball to have intensive crew work,” Tuchel stated. “Romelu struggled within the final video games a bit bit to ship that.
“That is what I meant once I stated [before the game] he was a bit bit drained. Not solely mentally drained however bodily drained, which I can perceive. It’s like this. At the moment we went for 3 different gamers. Kai is in excellent form and provides lots of high-intensity metres for the crew. For Sunday, we’ve 4 days to get better and naturally [Lukaku] has each probability to play.
“It was not the second after a match the place everyone was targeted on the few touches that he needed to put him straight away into the following fireplace. It was the second to take a step again, that was the choice and that is it.
“We have now now a robust win, a robust efficiency and nearly each query is about Romelu so the main target is big. There are like 9 different gamers who didn’t play. We must always always remember that we take into account this a crew sport.”
The win got here at a worth. Mateo Kovacic hobbled off six minutes into the second half earlier than Ziyech was additionally pressured out via damage. Each are doubts for Sunday, but it surely didn’t have an effect on issues right here with Pulisic and Havertz main from the entrance.
Exemplifying that work fee off the ball that Tuchel described, shortly after scoring, Pulisic tracked down Renato Sanches with a lung-busting run earlier than producing a slide sort out to dispossess him. A chant of “USA! USA! USA!” emerged from the Matthew Harding Stand in recognition of his efforts.
Shows like this can make Pulisic really feel a bit extra at house.