Fun, free-flowing Chelsea signal the start of something better under Graham Potter
A goalscorer turned up and Chelsea finally got goals. They were the side who struggled to score, the assortment of wingers and midfielders and No. 10s who could not find the finishing touch. And when a striker appeared – and a World Cup Golden Boot winner, no less – than they started finding the net again, in rare quantity and with considerable quality.
Admittedly, Gary Lineker is a 62-year-old Leicester fan who suddenly found himself free on a Saturday, rather than Todd Boehly’s latest signing. But after two goals in Chelsea’s previous six league games, they scored three in a match for the first time since October. In all competitions they have six in the best week of Graham Potter’s troubled time in charge and three straight wins. Finally, talk of progress is being accompanied by evidence of it. They were free-flowing, fun and full of flair. If beating Borussia Dortmund represented Potter’s finest result at Stamford Bridge, winning at Leicester ended Chelsea’s worst run on the road for 21 years. After 10 winless trips, they had an away day to savour.
There was a triumphant return to Leicester for one who made his name with the Foxes: not the watching Lineker, though he happily posed for photos and received backing in the form of several supportive banners, but Ben Chilwell, who showcased technique and precision to break the deadlock. Four decades since Lineker top scored in the old Division 2, a Leicester striker provided a clinical finish though Patson Daka struck from 20 yards, which was too far out for the ultimate goalhanger, and ended a 16-game drought, which was scarcely something the more prolific Englishman experienced.
Chelsea’s second came from Kai Havertz, their anti-Lineker, the creator who gets too few poachers’ goals, and Mateo Kovacic volleyed in a high-class third. The chances are a great goalscorer would admire the execution of each, even if he probably didn’t enjoy the outcome. But his match of the day was a cracker: Chelsea’s matches have produced the fewest goals this season but besides the four that stood, two were disallowed, each side hit the woodwork, there was a goal-line clearance, a couple of glaring misses and a red card.
Yet a surfeit of entertainment left Lineker’s beloved Leicester imperilled. This was their fifth successive defeat and if the problems they posed Chelsea suggested they have the talent to get out of trouble. Seven years after winning the league, two after beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final, a golden era in the club’s history could come to an abrupt end.
For Chelsea, there is the hope a year of extraordinary, expensive underachievement is the start of something better. A constant, despite the wholesale change in the personnel, is a reliance on wing-backs for attacking incision and if, minus Reece James, Chilwell had a still greater responsibility, but he responded wonderfully. Still on the right after taking a corner, Chilwell met Kalidou Koulibaly’s deep cross with a crisp volley. Booed by the Leicester fans before kick-off, he responded by cupping his ears to them.
Their second was arguably Chelsea’s goal of the season; admittedly, there have been too few candidates. But Enzo Fernandez chipped a pass over the defence and Havertz nonchalantly volleyed over Danny Ward. The delicacy of Fernandez’s pass showed a creativity that is required to help justify his record fee. It illustrated he is much more than just a defensive midfielder. Yet both sides had plenty of defending to do with Brendan Rodgers’ decision to switch to a back three scarcely bringing solidity. Set-pieces are a familiar failing for them and Ward had to save acrobatically from Wesley Fofana, another Leicester alumnus, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, from corners.
The encouraging element was City had a threat. Leicester had been so anaemic in attack they had not even mustered a shot on target in the league since 19 February. They were altogether livelier. Daniel Amartey headed wide when he should have converted James Maddison’s wonderful free kick. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall’s long-range shot was deflected off Koulibaly and on to the bar. The recalled Daka rifled in a shot from outside the box.
But it completed an unfortunate hat-trick from Joao Felix, who hit the post when he should have scored, strayed needlessly offside when he did find the net and then gave the ball away for Leicester’s goal. He remains stuck on a solitary goal for Chelsea and is becoming a specialist in hitting the woodwork, though at least the post was a variant on striking the bar.
It came after a lovely, languid pass from Havertz who, after a hugely influential display against Dortmund and who was terrific again, and his deft cross, led to Chelsea’s third. Mykhailo Mudryk headed it back across the box for Kovacic to finish in style. It was a redemptive moment for the £88 million Ukrainian, who had celebrated what he thought was his first Chelsea goal alone for an embarrassingly long time before realising he was offside, and ended Leicester’s chances of a comeback.
Such chances as they still had departed with Wout Faes, collecting a second caution for upending Carney Chukwuemeka. Before then, Chelsea substitute Conor Gallagher cleared Harry Souttar’s shot off the line. Dewsbury-Hall scuffed a shot when Kepa Arrizabalaga was out of position. Lineker would have scored it: definitely in his twenties and probably now in his sixties. At least he is spared the Saturday evening task of running through a league table that shows Leicester closer to the drop zone.