Lukaku strike sinks Al-Hilal and gives Chelsea shot at Club World Cup | Club World Cup

The most important thing is that Chelsea are one game away from winning the lot. This was an uneven performance from the European champions and although they stopped Al-Hilal from pulling off a shock, they will have to sharpen up when they face Palmeiras in the Club World Cup final on Saturday.

After all it is unlikely that the Copa Libertadores champions will be forgiving if Chelsea are this sloppy again. There was an anxiety to their play throughout this semi-final and Thomas Tuchel, who was unable to travel to Abu Dhabi after testing positive for Covid-19, must have been bouncing off the walls of his living room as he watched his side struggle to keep the errors at bay. “We spoke to Thomas at half-time,” Zsolt Low, Tuchel’s assistant, said. “He had the feeling that the players were nervous. Chelsea have never won this competition – that’s why the players felt pressure.”

It was heavy going at times and Tuchel, who could yet fly out to the Middle East if he tests negative, will see room for improvement. The German is too astute not to know that Romelu Lukaku’s giftwrapped winner did not hide the fact that Chelsea still have problems with their record signing. The reality is that Lukaku’s only goals since giving that interview have come against Chesterfield and Al-Hilal, whose devastation at full-time spoke volumes, and the worry for Tuchel is that his expensively assembled attack still shows no sign of clicking.

Once again there was little edge in the final third. Chelsea missed too many chances and their failure to kill off Al-Hilal almost proved costly, only for Kepa Arrizabalaga to deny Mohamed Kanno and Moussa Marega with two stunning saves in the second half.

“We lacked freedom,” Low said, bemoaning Chelsea’s vagueness in possession, although it should be pointed out that Al-Hilal put up a good fight. Leonardo Jardim’s enterprising side had impressed en route to the last four, putting six past Al Jazira in the previous round, and the Saudi champions were not short of threats in the final third.

Odion Ighalo was a familiar face up front, even if the former Manchester United and Watford striker is not the sprightliest mover these days, and Al-Hilal threatened at times, Marega causing problems on the right and Matheus Pereira a nimble presence between the lines.

This was a test for Tuchel’s side. The Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium was a boisterous place at kick-off, the noisy contingent of Al-Hilal fans urging their side to upset the odds, and there was an understandable rustiness to Chelsea at first. There was less than a minute on the clock when Mateo Kovacic gifted Ighalo a shooting opportunity and it soon became clear how much this tournament means to teams outside Europe, Ali al-Bulayhi typifying Al-Hilal’s desire when he somehow hooked the ball away from Lukaku just when the striker was about to burst clear in the 11th minute.

By that point, though, Chelsea had taken charge. Kovacic was smooth in central midfield and Chelsea were dangerous when Hakim Ziyech drifted inside from the right. Chances soon arrived. Ziyech sent a fizzing drive inches over from 20 yards and Lukaku was guilty of a poor miss, flicking César Azpilicueta’s low cross wide from close range.

Romelu Lukaku slots in Chelsea's winner.
Romelu Lukaku slots in Chelsea’s winner. Photograph: PA Wire/PA

At that stage it felt like it was going to be another trying experience for Lukaku. The Belgian’s movement was cumbersome, he kept straying offside and there was no hiding his lack of confidence when he wasted a chance to release Kai Havertz midway through the opening period.

In that context it was difficult to know what to think when Lukaku put Chelsea ahead in the 32nd minute. Kovacic started the move, driving forward, but Al-Hilal only had themselves to blame for failing to clear Havertz’s cross. Yasir al-Shahrani got himself into a horrible muddle at the far post and when the left-back’s messy clearance bounced off Al-Bulayhi, Abdullah al-Maiouf had no chance of stopping Lukaku from beating him from close range.

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Yet does a scrappy goal against limited opposition mean that Lukaku’s woes are over? The £97.5m striker was barely involved after the interval and rarely appeared to be on the same wavelength as Havertz and Ziyech.

It was not convincing, even if Havertz and Ziyech both went close in the second half. Chelsea, who replaced Jorginho with N’Golo Kanté at half-time, faded as the contest wore on and were indebted to Arrizabalaga in the end. Tuchel will not be fooled.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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