The beginning of a new era at Stamford Bridge, that should have been about a fresh start from Romelu Lukaku, but finished with a thrilling and largely inevitable sting in the tail from Wolves. The result is actually more of the same from Chelsea, whose future off the field is now clearer but struggles on it have continued thanks to Conor Coady’s dramatic 97th-minute header.
Arsenal can now close the gap to Chelsea and third place to one point with a win over Leeds tomorrow. Thomas Tuchel had called on his team to lift their level in order to arrest this slump in form, and although the sight of Todd Boehly from his new vantage point will be the lasting image of what turned out to be an eventful afternoon, the Chelsea manager is now in need of a victory against Leeds on Wednesday to avoid what is turning into a nervous and alarming end to their Premier League season.
Chelsea were set for a fairly comfortable victory after Lukaku’s double – his first Premier League goals since December – but if the twists and turns of the takeover saga were anything to go by, there was always going to be a frantic end.
Francisco Trincao changed the game with his late curler to pull one back after Chelsea were caught on the counter-attack. He then saw a shot deflect wide of the post and Raul Jimenez went close with a dipping volley, while there was also a shout for a penalty after Hwang Hee-Chan went down in the box.
It is perhaps telling of the malfunctions in Chelsea’s once-pristine defensive machine that they allowed themselves to be caught so late on – and why the mood changed so suddenly after Trincao’s sublime finish. The equalizer did feel like it was coming, as Wolves flooded forward, with Coady powering in a header at the back post to unleash chaos in the away end.
Boehly watched on – this had been quite the introduction – but so too by that point did Lukaku. He had been taken off to a standing ovation and with Stamford Bridge signing his name. Somehow, it would still not be his afternoon.
By the hour mark, as Lukaku planted a wonderful first-time finish past Jose Sa to double Chelsea’s lead, it really felt like it would be. “He has to happen,” was Tuchel’s vague assessment of what Lukaku needed to do in order to turn his Chelsea career around.
Winning and scoring a second-half penalty for Chelsea’s breakthrough was a good place to start. It brought visible relief from Boehly, and a thump of the chest from Lukaku.
What a difference a goal makes, they say, but it certainly did. It lifted the atmosphere but rather masked the fact that until that point Chelsea had again failed to reach the levels demanded by Tuchel following last Sunday’s limp defeat at Everton.
Tuchel took charge of Chelsea for the first time in a 0-0 draw against Wolves last January – in a match that did not promise much but marked the start of a remarkable turnaround at the end of that season. Chelsea have lost a lot of that spark in recent weeks. This should have been the difference, but it finishes as another match of frustration and missed chances.
They thought they had lift-off after Ruben Loftus-Cheek turned the ball in at the back post only to see it disallowed by VAR for offside. Boehly looked as confused as anyone by the lengthy review but the result of the second VAR intervention was more to his pleasing after referee Peter Bankes overturned his initial decision to award a penalty for Romain Saiss tripping Lukaku in the box.
The penalty was simple, tucked into the bottom left corner to send Sa the wrong way, but the goal was one of persistence after he chased down Saiss and forced the error.
Lukaku did not allow himself to give up on it and as yet has not given up on his Chelsea career. Christian Pulisic did not give up the fight, either, on his first league start in two months, as he forced another turnover before slipping Lukaku through on goal.
The finish was immaculate and, while it was only his seventh Premier League goal of the season, it looked like being arguably his most important yet at that time.
Even before his double, Lukaku was brighter both in his involvements in general play and goal attempts – but two scuffed shots at goal in the first half spoke of his lack of confidence. Werner missed chances, too, and it was simply his luck that when he did beat Sa, his goal was disallowed for a shove on Saiss.
Wolves, who were without their manager Bruno Lage due to a positive Covid test, had a clear game plan. They threatened twice on the counter in the first half, in a warning that Chelsea did not heed. The visitors sat deep and were compact, but they were often sloppy in possession and a more ruthless Chelsea side would have put them away.
But Trincao changed the game and as Coady sent Lage wild as he watched from home in his living room, Chelsea were again left lacking the certainty they want, just as it looked as if it had arrived.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.