Chelsea 2 Lille 0
For Thomas Tuchel, the hope will be that Romelu Lukaku has a better understanding of how Chelsea aspire to play after the striker spent 90 minutes watching from the bench. This was a flexible and smart performance from the European champions, who functioned perfectly well without their £97.5 million signing, and on this evidence Lukaku could be forgiven for wondering if his new diminished role is here to stay.
After all there is little reason for Tuchel to bring the Belgian back when Chelsea meet Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday. There could well be another humiliation on the way after this comfortable win over Lille. Chelsea were far more effective with the excellent Kai Havertz up front and they have a firm grip on this last-16 tie after Christian Pulisic gave them a 2-0 lead to take to Lille next month.
After making great play of wanting to protect Lukaku, it was telling that Tuchel decided that the best way to do so was by keeping him out of the limelight altogether. “A look of tiredness” was how the coach explained his decision to bench Chelsea’s record signing, but nobody was buying that.
As ever, the evidence was on the pitch. After all Lukaku had mustered a grand total of seven touches against Crystal Palace, the fewest registered by any Premier League player over 90 minutes since Opta began keeping track in 2003. Numbers of such anonymity made it simple for Tuchel, who seemed to be on to something by picking a front three that looked pacy and tricky on paper.
It was a controversial call, though, and one that Tuchel needed to come off. Chelsea have stumbled of late; their title challenge unravelling, injuries to key players taking their toll. It feels as if the next drama is always waiting to erupt and although there was a nice moment before kick-off, the injured trio of Ben Chilwell, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James parading the club's latest trophy around the pitch, the applause was accompanied by an awareness that this season is not going to be defined by Club World Cup glory.
Ultimately this was more important and it looked like Chelsea knew it during the early stages. Pulisic took the game to Lille with some driving runs and the opening goal should have arrived inside four minutes, Havertz somehow turning César Azpilicueta’s cross over from close range.
Would Lukaku have put it away? Probably. The point, though, is that Chelsea are far more mobile with Havertz leading the line. The Germany forward's graceful movement was causing problems for Sven Botman and Jose Fonte, Lille's centre backs, and he quickly put his early miss behind him, shifting inside from the right before drawing a wonderful sprawling save from Léo Jardim after seven minutes.
Eleventh in Ligue 1, Lille soon cracked. Hakim Ziyech lifted in a corner from the left and Havertz made it look easy in the middle, rising unmarked to send a bouncing header beyond Jardim.
Tuchel had his vindication. For a while, with N'Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovacic controlling midfield, it was one-way traffic. Marcos Alonso went close with a volley. Pulisic kept running. Havertz was gliding around.
Slowly, though, Lille came into the contest. Tuchel soon grew irritable on the touchline, roaring when Ziyech wasted a chance to shoot. The manager was seeing too many mistakes from Chelsea and Lille were growing in confidence. Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan David were looking dangerous and Chelsea, who survived a few skirmishes in their area, were relieved to escape when Antonio Rüdiger almost sliced Renato Sanches's cross past Édouard Mendy.
There was more hope for Lille after the break. Azpilicueta was working hard to contain Bamba and Chelsea were starting to retreat. Too many counterattacks were fizzling out and the worries for Tuchel increased when Kovacic made way for Ruben Loftus-Cheek before hobbling down the tunnel with an injury that could keep him out against Liverpool at Wembley.
Chelsea's early zest had all but disappeared by that stage. Alonso had a volley blocked by Zeki Celik and Havertz fired over, but the game had become increasingly bitty and Tuchel was forced into another adjustment when Ziyech went down with an ankle problem just before the hour.
That, though, allowed Tuchel to regain control. He chose to bring on Saúl Ñíguez instead of another attacker and more bodies in the middle meant that there was a chance to release Kanté, who accepted his new role with relish, dousing Lille’s fight with the run that led to Chelsea’s second goal.
The surge came out of nowhere. Suddenly, after an aimless Lille attack broke down, Kanté was tearing through the middle and carrying Chelsea up the pitch. Nobody could keep up with him and there was quality to go with the athleticism, the midfielder’s weighted pass sending Pulisic through to score with a lovely dink.
It was a deserved goal for Pulisic. Chelsea were able to relax. The introduction of Hatem Ben Arfa was not enough for Lille, although at least he got on the pitch. With Timo Werner sent on before him, the same could not be said of Lukaku. – Guardian