Two moments of sublime quality punctuated a perfectly-understated Chelsea performance before Real rock up at the Bridge…
This was a west London derby Thomas Tuchel did not need.
Sandwiched between Champions League semi-final clashes with Real Madrid, the visit of a Fulham side expected to be fighting for the lives was an irritating inconvenience that Chelsea simply had to be deal with.
Which they did with impressive ease. The Blues took care of business, keeping their neighbours at arm’s length, punctuating a workmanlike performance with two pieces of brilliance at the start of each half to get the job done, likely condemning the Cottagers to relegation.
It is up to Tuchel to decide what most turned him on: Chelsea’s efficiency and a fourth clean sheet in five matches; or the match-winning moments which allowed Kai Havertz to double his Premier League tally for the season.
Even in those sparks of creativity there was simplicity. Or ‘precision’ as Tuchel has longed for.
The opener would reasonably be described as Route One, but there was so much more to admire in the creation of Havertz’s 10th-minute strike. Thiago Silva launched a long pass from his own box down the centre of the pitch which returned to earth over the shoulder of Mason Mount. Between touch and pass, Mount went from the ridiculous to the sublime to allow Havertz to apply a ruthless finishing touch.
There were shades of the first in Chelsea’s second. Another long ball from Ben Chilwell was killed instead by Havertz, who played a one-two almost in slow motion with Timo Werner with Fulham’s back four strewn across the penalty box. The pass once more was perfectly weighted; Havertz’s finish was calm, confident and clinical.
Impressive though it was, little about Chelsea’s overall performance will have taught Tuchel much that he had not already gleaned from his first three months in charge. But the manager took the opportunity to look more closely at Billy Gilmour. The 19-year-old was given his first Premier League start since last July and his first minutes under the German manager as N’Golo Kante and Jorginho were handed a breather.
The teenager, of whom so much is expected, did not have it easy. He was paired with Mount in what for many Chelsea supporters represents their midfield of the future. But with Mount driving forward, it was left to Gilmour to man the back door.
Tuchel did Gilmour a solid by introducing Kante for the final 25 minutes when perhaps he wasn’t needed but the France star’s appearance allowed the teenager to shuffle forward while Mount, before he too was replaced, shifted forward into his more familiar role in the front three.
Still, Gilmour struggled to pull any strings, either with a pass or on the dribble, but Tuchel will recognise that more of a symptom of the fading contest. Fulham’s fight had sapped entirely, while Gilmour’s team-mates were understandably keen to negotiate the final stages without any pre-Real incident.
Ideally, Tuchel would have liked to see Werner get a scent of goal before midweek – it might have come in the final seconds had he not been chopped down by Ola Aina – but there was still more to be encouraged by in the German forward’s performance. Another assist takes his tally to 13 for the season, in addition to 11 goals. A goal contribution in 24 of his 46 appearances is a creditable if not spectacular return. The runs keep coming, as does the graft. The goals will follow next season, surely?
But Tuchel can’t think beyond Wednesday. With an inconvenient derby safely negotiated, Chelsea can shift all their focus to Real Madrid satisfied that they could hardly be better prepared for the biggest Bridge battle in years.