Friday had been a normal day for Thomas Tuchel. The Chelsea head coach had overseen first-team training at Cobham, had ensured his side were prepared for the visit of Plymouth in the FA Cup, and undertook his pre-match press conference duties.
He was in good spirits, refreshed by the week off he had enjoyed at home during the international break. But then Tuchel discovered he had tested positive for Covid and in an instant, his itinerary for the forthcoming week was changed.
Having entered into self-isolation, Tuchel couldn’t take his place in the dugout for the fourth-round tie against Plymouth Argyle – nor could he travel with the first-team group to Abu Dhabi last night for the Club World Cup.
Yet the hard work had been done by the Chelsea boss who promised that a strong side would be selected for the FA Cup clash.
“This game is about being ready after a one-week break and after one week of training. It’s about being ready and getting ready to win the next game and to restart the engines,” Tuchel said during his pre-match press conference. “The professional squad will take care of the game.”
There were 10 full internationals in the Chelsea starting XI; Malang Sarr the only man yet to represent his country at senior level. However, the Blues were second best for much of the opening 45 minutes.
Plymouth deserved their opener and the travelling supporters, many of whom had endured a four-hour journey ahead of the lunchtime kick-off, revelled in their unexpected lead.
Cesar Azpilicueta’s equaliser in the first half should’ve given Chelsea a platform from which they went on to win the game comfortably, but they remained sluggish and lacklustre in the second period and for much of extra time.
That Chelsea progressed was down to two Spaniards: Marcos Alonso for scoring what proved to be the winner in the 105th-minute and Kepa Arrizabalaga for saving a late Ryan Hardie penalty. It wasn’t pretty but it was enough.
Victory at a cost
Tuchel and Chelsea’s coaching staff never banked on the game lasting 120 minutes. Arno Michels, who stepped into the head coach’s role for the game, admitted as much in his post-match press conference.
“To play 120 minutes was not the target for today we have to say and we had a few little injuries, hopefully only little injuries. It is not easy to come back after the break and play a game like this.”
Those little injuries will be of concern given Chelsea are in Club World Cup action this week. Ben Chilwell is already ruled out of the tournament in Abu Dhabi, as is Reece James. Ruben Loftus-Cheek may not be able to feature either as he is carrying a small Achilles issue.
After Plymouth, Azpilicueta, Hakim Ziyech and Mason Mount will also require treatment. The latter will be of most concern, though, given he was replaced in extra time and went straight down the tunnel.
“He felt an injury in extra time with this shot on goal,” Michels said after the game when asked by football.london.
“Only by this shot – it wasn’t a serious problem during the game – it was only when he had the shot he realised he had quick he felt pain and so we took him off.
“We will see. There will be further exams. Hopefully, it’s not too bad but right now I can’t promise what the situation is.”
Chelsea may also be without Tuchel for the Club World Cup as government guidelines state that anyone who is vaccinated – which the Blues head coach is – against the virus must quarantine for ten days.
However, that period can be reduced to just five days so long as two negative lateral flow tests are returned on both day five and day six.
If that were to happen, Tuchel would be able to take his place on the touchline for the final should Chelsea get there.
Attacking frustrations evident
Romelu Lukaku. Timo Werner. Kai Havertz. Hakim Ziyech. Callum Hudson-Odoi. Mason Mount. Six players who combined cost more than £250million in transfer fees – and don’t forget the latter two are academy graduates.
That wealth of attacking talent should’ve been enough to ensure a comfortable Chelsea win against a League One side that was a little more than a week ago breached three times by Fleetwood Town.
That didn’t happen, however. Lukaku – signed for £97.5million from Inter Milan in the summer – started as the central striker and offered a minimal threat in the first half.
He was slightly more involved after the break but it wasn’t until extra time he started to have more of an influence.
At that point, Havertz and Werner had come off the substitutes’ bench and Ziyech was probing from the left to try to unlock the stubborn Plymouth backline.
Werner’s introduction was called for by those inside Stamford Bridge. The forward’s name was sung as he warmed up, his support remains strong despite his poor goalscoring record over the previous 18 months.
Unfortunately, Werner’s outing was as ineffective as Lukaku’s and the German drew the ire of Jorginho during the additional 30 minutes; the Italian shouted at his teammate for not showing for a pass as Chelsea attempted to escape Plymouth pressure in their own defensive third.
Werner also angered Lukaku with the Belgian furious with his fellow striker, who pulled out of a challenge after the ball had been played through. In defence of the 25-year-old, Lukaku’s through pass was not the best.
As has been far too often the case this term, it was left to the defenders to win the game for Chelsea. Azpilicueta’s first-half flick was a rare moment of quality while Alonso’s penalty-box prowess has proved hugely valuable for the Blues over the years.
If only those paid to score the goals showed the same goalscoring instincts as the 31-year-old – a rather damning phrase given the money Chelsea have spent on their attack over the past three years.