The jury is still in places Christian Pulisic and Willian could occupy in Chelsea’s history, but given their scoring role in a 2-1 victory against Manchester City, they have both become Liverpool legends.
The inevitable is no longer delayed: Jurgen Klopp’s team may not be able to celebrate the club’s first title in 30 years with their supporters, but they may enjoy touring as champions with more dates than some plays in the London West End.
Liverpool’s margin of victory with seven games to spare is a testament to their unmatched mix of class and consistency. It is also evidence of City’s defensive fallibility and chasm that the chase group must compensate to create more competition next season.
What’s most encouraging for Chelsea is that while this performance simply reinforced where City fell short, the home team produced evidence that they could close the gap and mount a sustained title challenge.
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Injured in early 2020, Pulisic watched during the league’s three-month shutdown as Chelsea quietly began to beef up its attacking power. The American international arrived last summer as the heir to the throne of Eden Hazard, a £ 58 million ($ 64 million) lifeguard for a club that cannot sign players due to a transfer ban, however, a year later he has observed how the club is strengthened in the positions that he wants to do his thing.
Pulisic could have been further alarmed by being left out of the starting lineup at Aston Villa after the restart of play, but an equalizing goal preceded a place in XI against City and was unwilling to squander the opportunity.
Chelsea coach Frank Lampard pointed to the acquisitions of Hakim Ziyech from Ajax and RB Leipzig forward Timo Werner, after lamenting Chelsea’s waste in front of goal. That’s why the club continues to monitor Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz, whose signature, if completed, would further alter the line of attack.
Thus, the onus is on those in place to respond and Pulisic did exactly that on Thursday, taking advantage of a mistake to give Chelsea the lead after 36 minutes. When Benjamin Mendy passed the ball into space instead of Ilkay Gundogan, Pulisic took the opportunity to rush to goal.
There was plenty to do from within the center circle in his own half, but a change of pace allowed Mendy to quickly pass and explode. Maintaining that relentless speed, Pulisic then curved a shot with his right foot from the edge of the penalty area, past Ederson and into the corner. The entire race included six touches. Composite, clinical, confident. Everything Lampard wants from his attacking players.
“I wanted to protect [Pulisic] a little against Villa, see if he can make an impact, “Lampard said.” I always planned to start it against City because I know what it can contribute in this type of games and it brought it. He did very well. You need to keep working. He is a young player but with so much talent, he can improve and improve. “
The opening goal came at a time when the hosts were just beginning to find ways to avoid the city press. Lampard shouted his orders from the sideline, training his players through virtually every moment of those intense phases after Pep Guardiola’s side initially seemed to pass Chelsea on a hot London night.
The second half followed a similar pattern. City started out strong in search of an equalizer, albeit muffled by the lack of a powerful center-forward in the absence of Sergio Agüero. Guardiola opted for Bernardo Silva as a false nine, but abandoned the plan 10 minutes after the break, presenting Gabriel Jesus and David Silva for Rodri and Bernardo.
However, it was Kevin De Bruyne who dragged down to the City level with a 55-minute free kick of such a power and placement so irresistible that Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga could only drop to his knees in response after the ball flew about him.
Knowing they need a win to delay the Liverpool party, City continued to live dangerously in the back. Pulisic nearly scored a second after rounding Ederson and directing a shot at the target, but Kyle Walker somehow pulled him off the line.
The Chelsea substitutes, accumulated on the lower level of the East Stand next to the bench, cried for video technology to intervene, but referee Stuart Attwell’s clock did not tick. However, with 12 minutes to go, VAR intervened decisively.
Willian stormed down the right and found substitute Tammy Abraham, whose shot was saved by Ederson. When Pulisic and then Abraham attempted to force the ball onto the line, Fernandinho pushed the ball with his left arm.
Attwell missed it, but Craig Pawson at Stockley Park did not. In a week that saw Lampard praise Willian’s professionalism and impact on younger players, the Brazilian international stepped forward to impose the winning penalty that consigned City to his fate and left Chelsea savoring a vital victory in the search for Champions League football.
Willian has won five major honors with Chelsea, but the news that he had extended his contract until the end of the season had a mixed reaction, even more the possibility of signing a new agreement to stay beyond that. However, six years after writing the epitaph for the Liverpool title challenge with a goal in Chelsea’s victory at Anfield, the winger took the decisive blow in the Anfield club’s inaugural Premier League success.
“I am delighted with Willian this season,” said Lampard. “The players admire him. He is a senior professional within the group, but he has quality, work ethic and was a continuation of his form for much of the season.”
Chelsea is tackling its failures, though whether that improvement can extend to title challenges remains to be seen. City, although from a higher level, has to do the same.