Chelsea beat Leicester to grab top-four initiative but fans fear for Blues’ Champions League final hopes after Kante off injured
Welcoming 8,000 fans back to Stamford Bridge for the biggest crowd since the pandemic, Chelsea clinched a win crucial to their hopes of finishing in the Champions League places after a bundled goal from Antonio Rudiger and a penalty from Jorginho.
Kelechi Iheanacho’s strike 15 minutes from time made for a potentially nervy finish at the Bridge but Thomas Tuchel’s team saw the game out to leapfrog Leicester into third place in the league, one point ahead of their rivals heading into the final round of matches on Sunday.
With a game in hand, Liverpool are now lurking dangerously three points behind the Foxes and with a marginally superior goal difference.
Chelsea’s performance was one of vastly-improved energy levels from their tame showing at Wembley on Saturday, but still came tinged with concern – not least regarding the loss of Kante just after the half-hour mark.
The all-action midfield lynchpin was replaced by Mateo Kovacic, causing immediate consternation among the Blues faithful with the Champions League final against Manchester City looming in 11 days’ time.
The departure did not appear to come as the result of any contact, although the French World Cup winner has nursed hamstring and Achilles injuries this season, meaning the sight of him sharing a word with Tuchel before heading straight down the touchline immediately struck fear into Chelsea fans’ hearts.
📸 - Kanté has asked for a substitution, Kovacic replaces him after 30 minutes already.. pic.twitter.com/Kuqz3g0cn7— 𝐀𝐅𝐂 𝐀𝐉𝐀𝐗 💎 (@TheEuropeanLad) May 18, 2021
Kante injured? Yeah I’m packing my bags, we’re finished.— Mod (@CFCMod_) May 18, 2021
Those scenes punctuated a first half of frustration for Chelsea, most evident in the luckless form of Timo Werner.
Werner’s woes in front of goal have become the hallmark of his maiden season at the Blues, and the hapless German forward suffered another 45 minutes to forget.
The 25-year-old was first denied a shout for a penalty when he went down in the Leicester box under pressure from Youri Tielemans, although referee Mike Dean blew for a free-kick against the Chelsea man.
Moments later, and Werner thought he’d broken the deadlock when he latched onto a poked Mason Mount throughball, finishing smartly past Kasper Schmeichel only to be met with the familiar sight of a raised offside flag.
How has Timo Werner not been given a penalty by VAR?? 🤷🏽♂️🤷🏽♂️🤷🏽♂️ pic.twitter.com/Ei39INEZDN— Jonathan Walters (@JonWalters19) May 18, 2021
Timo Werner 🤝 Goals disallowed for offside Fine margins for the Chelsea number 11 😫 pic.twitter.com/4pontPj7bC— Goal (@goal) May 18, 2021
The German’s first-half misery continued when he thought he’d scored after arriving at the backpost from a corner to bundle the ball over the line.
Wheeling off in celebration and launching into a kneeslide along the Stamford Bridge turf, Werner’s joy was yet again curtailed when the VAR replay showed the clear use of a hand as the ball made its way across the line.
"The first half was a bit like a mirror of the whole season for me," the German would aptly explain after the match.
"Always close, then at the end not really. [But] when you are young and in the final of the Champions League it's no problem."
Timo Werner has a goal ruled out for handball 😳 pic.twitter.com/QPTKbOiEXO— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 18, 2021
Just before the break, Chelsea player of the year Mount then produced a blistering burst past two Leicester players and into the box, crossing for Christian Pulisic but the American’s shot was steered just wide of the near post.
It was all pressure from Chelsea and the kind of reaction Tuchel would have wanted from his men after their limp showing at Wembley on Saturday, but without the breakthrough their dominance warranted.
Two minutes into the second half and the goal did arrive as defensive giant Rudiger turned home a corner with his knee after the ball had been inadvertently flicked on by a Leicester head.
It was a cathartic moment for the German and the 8,000 fans at Stamford Bridge as they took the initiative from Leicester in their top-four tussle.
Werner had a chance to double the lead in the 64th minute but sent the ball tamely at Schmeichel when racing through under pressure.
However, the German finally made an impact when he won a penalty soon after, going down under the lightest of pressure from Leicester defender Wesley Fofana.
Midfield metronome Jorginho skipped up to tuck the ball calmly past Schmeichel as Chelsea could breathe more easily with a two-goal cushion.
85% - Of Jorginho's 13 Premier League goals, 11 have been penalties (85%), the highest such ratio by any player with 10+ goals in the competition's history. Reliable.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 18, 2021
That lead perhaps bred complacency though when Leicester pressed Chelsea into a mistake playing out from the back.
Kovacic was dispossessed and the ball fell to in-form substitute Iheanacho, who steered the ball home to make for a nervy finish in the last 15 minutes.
Ayoze Perez blazed the ball over the bar with the goal at his mercy in the 89th minute, leaving Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers with his head in his hands as that proved his team's last chance to snatch a vital late point.
The closing moments to the match were marred by an ugly mass brawl sparked when Ricardo Pereira made a late challenge on former Foxes defender Ben Chilwell. The ensuing scuffle dragged in large numbers from both sides, including Leicester substitute Daniel Amartey – the man accused of disrespecting Chelsea by tossing the London club's pennant to the ground during the FA Cup celebrations on Saturday.
Amartey was handed a yellow card for his role in the fracas, with Chelsea boss Tuchel later admitting that his players were "well aware" of Amartey's apparent slight on their club.
The moment Thiago Silva, Mason Mount and César Azpilicueta recognized Daniel AmarteyProper Chelsea through and through pic.twitter.com/HYjolQfDB6— Evo (@CFCEvo26) May 19, 2021
The Foxes will now have to watch on nervously as Liverpool face Burnley in their game in hand on Wednesday, before the season concludes on Sunday with Leicester hosting Tottenham, Liverpool at home to Crystal Palace and Chelsea traveling to Aston Villa.
"We have two more to go [including the Champions League final]," Chelsea boss Tuchel said after the game.
"The fans made a huge difference. The speed in our game, the hunger, the ambition. It was a very strong performance and I'm delighted the team can present itself like this in front of our fans...
"It's still in our hands. We need another huge performance but with fans in the Aston Villa ground will be super hard."
Speaking specifically on Kante, Tuchel allayed some initial concerns by saying he had "a good feeling" that the issue wasn't too serious, and likewise with Kai Havertz, who was missing from the squad on Tuesday.
"I don't know yet, we will check them tomorrow. I have a good feeling with NG [Kante], he said he felt something and didn't want to risk a muscle injury. But I hope for Sunday, and with Kai the same."
🗣"I am not sure yet, I have a good feeling." Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel gave an injury update on N'Golo Kante pic.twitter.com/oDPqyaa9aV— Football Daily (@footballdaily) May 18, 2021
Tuchel and Chelsea fans will be keeping everything crossed that the German manager's optimism is well-placed, and that Kante in particular will at least be ready for their Champions League showdown with Manchester City in Portugal on May 29.