There is still no guarantee that Chelsea will be able to finish the season, with the reality of their precarious situation implying that even the most unlikely of scenarios cannot be ruled out, but there is also every chance that they will end it by retaining their European crown.
Stranger things have happened, and there will always be hope as long as Chelsea has Thomas Tuchel on the sidelines figuring out how to win games. Tuchel, whose moral leadership has been so impressive since it became clear that Roman Abramovich’s ownership could not continue, will believe the holders have a chance of lifting this trophy again after goals from Christian Pulisic and César Azpilicueta helped them see off a spirited, creative challenge from Lille.
Chelsea must have craved a quiet night after the squabbles over ticket allocations and the negotiations over travel allowances. There was no need for drama, according to Tuchel. Every day has seemed to bring a new form of uncertainty for Chelsea, who felt public sympathy slipping away when they attempted to have Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Middlesbrough moved behind closed doors, and Tuchel’s election suggested that he was not concerned with putting on a show, with the sight of eight defensive players behind Kai Havertz and Pulisic a clear indication that the visitors were focused on containment over entertainment.
It appeared to be a daunting challenge for Lille, who had produced little in the first leg, which they lost 2-0 last month. The Stade Pierre-Mauroy was a raucous place at kickoff, with the home crowd urging their players on, but it was difficult to see how Jocelyn Gourvennec’s side hoped to break down Chelsea at first. N’Golo Kanté, Jorginho, and Mateo Kovacic were effective shields in front of Chelsea’s back five, and Lille lacked conviction when half-chances did arrive, with their initial threat largely limited to a couple of hopeful long-range sighters from Burak Yilmaz.
However, as the first half progressed, there was a sense that Chelsea’s caution was inviting trouble. Havertz had a couple of nice flicks, and Kovacic had a zigzagging run through the middle, but there was little flow. Havertz and Pulisic were isolated, with Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso told not to push forward on the flanks, and Chelsea would run into problems after losing Andreas Christensen, with the loss of the Danish center-back temporarily causing them to lose composure at the back.
Trevoh Chalobah was brought on in Christensen’s place, and within a minute of his arrival, the young defender was turned by Jonathan David. Players wriggling past Chalobah appear to be a weakness in his game – he was lucky not to concede a penalty for something similar against Newcastle – and Chelsea was under pressure when he conceded a free-kick after dragging David down.
The free-kick was taken, the ball was not cleared, and Lille yelled for a penalty when Jorginho handled while attempting to challenge Xena. Although Davide Massa missed the handball in real-time, there was no doubt that the Italian referee would point to the spot after being told to check the pitchside monitor, allowing Yilmaz to give Lille hope by burying a ruthless spot-kick beyond Édouard Mendy.
Chelsea appeared to be on the ropes, with the home fans bouncing. That, however, was the cue for them to demonstrate their class. They equalized brilliantly just before halftime, with Jorginho relishing the opportunity to atone for his role in Lille’s goal. The Italian’s pass was beautiful, bent with the outside of his right foot, and Pulisic was running in unnoticed from the right before clipping a low shot across Léo Jardim and into the far corner.
It was a crucial intervention from Pulisic, who has been in good scoring form recently, but Tuchel was not entirely satisfied. Chelsea was still only playing in bursts, and Tuchel used the half-time break to change his formation, substituting Mason Mount for Kovacic to give Lille more to worry about at the back.
Nonetheless, Lille posed the greater threat at the start of the second half. They almost took the lead again when Jonathan Bamba, who had twisted past Alonso on the right, crossed for Yilmaz, who headed inches wide with Mendy beaten. Chelsea’s defense still had too many gaps, even with Thiago Silva at the heart of it, and they had another escape just after the hour, Xeka’s free header bouncing off the post.
Lille, which is sixth in Ligue 1, would be disappointed with those misses. With 19 minutes remaining, Mount darted down the left and swung a dangerous cross to the far post. Timothy Weah was slow to react, and Azpilicueta charged, kneeing the ball past Jardim to give Chelsea a brief sense of control over their fate.