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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Even in victory, Chelsea give Mauricio Pochettino more riddles to solve

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A thrilling comeback victory should have given Mauricio Pochettino some rare solace as he continues to get to grips with this basket case of a club but the manner of Chelsea’s success at Nottingham Forest was the perfect microcosm for their tumultuous season.

With the Forest players already planning their summer jaunts pre-match after Luton’s loss at West Ham earlier on Saturday meant they were all but relegated ahead of the final weekend, Chelsea had the perfect platform to express themselves, loosen the shackles and show what one billion pounds gets you.

With Cole Palmer at his brilliant best orchestrating things, what could go wrong? Well almost quite a lot for Chelsea. Nicolas Jackson’s winner completed a gripping Chelsea turnaround late on in an exhilarating clash, but a first away win in three months still came with plenty for Pochettino to ponder.

They weren’t quite there before kick-off, but they were, really. Luton’s defeat at West Ham ensured the Hatters need a record victory on the final day and Forest to be hammered twice. Thus, the mood around the City Ground was more carnival than edge-of-your-seat suspense.

With the pressure off, the pre-match ‘Mull of Kintyre’ was even more spine-tingling than usual, the golden sunshine bouncing off the Trent adding to the idyllic scene. It was hard for the players to remember they had a job to do.

Palmer needs no reminding. Given time to pick his pass, the former Manchester City trainee slid a sumptuous pass into Mykhailo Mudryk, with the Ukrainian making no mistake to give Chelsea the lead.

Mykhailo Mudryk deftly put Chelsea ahead (REUTERS)

The opener was all about the precision of the pass rather than anything Mudryk did to finish things off, highlighting there is more to Palmer’s game than calm penalties and stunning goals. The Player of the Year nominee is now only the fourth player in Premier League history to score 20 or more goals, while assisting 10 or more, in his debut campaign.

Such an output also gave us a stark reminder of what a poor return everyone else has made in blue this term and the rest of the first half was a struggle for the visitors, with Forest levelling in all-too-familiar fashion. Willy Boly headed home having been given the freedom of Nottingham from a free-kick, the defender’s first league goal since August.

Ryan Yates clipped the outside of the post early in the second half for Forest, with several other big chances coming and going – Chris Wood missing the most glaring of them, blazing over the crossbar from close range after Morgan Gibbs-White had again struck the post – before Callum Hudson-Odoi was denied by the woodwork too.

Morgan Gibbs-White was one of many Forest players to strike the woodwork (Getty Images)

Having been given a sighter, Hudson-Odoi sashayed inside in identical fashion moments later, but again rode the challenges before curling a sublime strike into the net. It seemed like typical Chelsea, a player they let go for pittance coming back to haunt them.

For all their fragile flaws, however, the quality does, especially lately, shine through. Raheem Sterling’s fine goal into the far corner quickly restored parity, with Jackson pouncing less than two minutes later to complete the turnaround.

Again, it was all about the supply, with substitute Reece James, playing his first football in five months, clipping a pinpoint cross onto the head of Jackson – an opportunity even he couldn’t miss. What might have been for Chelsea, had their flying full-back been fit for the full season.

The result didn’t dampen the home supporters’ spirits. On another day, they would have had enough to earn all three points. The sheer endeavour shown by the hosts ensured the final lap of honour was completed in front of a full house, with the survival job almost done.

Nicolas Jackson came up with the Chelsea winner late on (Getty Images)

For Pochettino, it is almost as if he cannot enjoy anything without being given more riddles to solve.

Since Boxing Day 2023, only three teams have picked up more points than Chelsea in the Premier League – the trio of title contenders, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool. They’ve lost just three of their 18 games in this period too. But take Palmer, and a cameo from James, out of their showing at the City Ground and the performance was distinctly ordinary.

Progress is certainly being made, but Pochettino must remain under no illusions about the monumental task still ahead of him if he is to remain at the helm for next season.

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