Chelsea moves one step closer to global glory as they book their spot in the Club World Cup final thanks to a nervy win over the Asian champions Al-Hilal thanks to Romelu Lukaku’s early winner in Abu Dhabi.
Chelsea came through unscathed in what turned into a tricky semi-final in Abu Dhabi to give themselves the chance to be world champions this weekend as Romelu Lukaku struck his first goal for a month to overcome Saudi side Al-Hilal.
Yet Chelsea will need to improve considerably to win the Club World Cup for the first time in their history when they face Brazilian club Palmeiras on Saturday evening after what looked initially like a straightforward task turned into an unexpectedly nervy occasion, as Chelsea faded in the second half and Al Hilal surged with confidence.
The Saudi Arabian team, coached by Leonardo Jardim, the highly-respected former Monaco coach who nurtured the Bernardo Silva-Kylian Mbappe generation during his time in the principality, gave Chelsea a more uncomfortable final twenty minutes than the European champions would have anticipated after they had dominated the first half.
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Ultimately Kepa’s excellence in goal spared Chelsea the necessity of extra time but the Al Hilal, who had dispensed Abu Dhabi team AL Jazira 6-1 on Sunday in the quarter-finals, made it a tightly fought affair in the closing stages of the encounter.
Lukaku eventually proved the match-winner, which he will count as a welcome boost in his troubled return to the club. That said, he might have had a first-half hat-trick had he been a touch sharper. He fluffed his lines on 18 minutes when Cesar Azpilicueta’s surging run down the right and cross presented him with a close-range opportunity.
But instead of lightly touching the ball over the goalkeeper, he produced an air shot, perhaps with minimal contact. That came two minutes after he had been denied by Al Hilal keeper Adbudllah Al-Muaiouf, who was smartly off his line to block the Belgian striker as he bore down on goal.
Lukaku had his moment on 32 minutes, though it had as much to do with abysmal defending as it did with clinical finishing. Kai Havertz created the chance, racing down the left and leaving Mohammed Al-Burayk stranded as he sharply stopped, turned and crossed.
Havertz missed his intended target yet the hapless defender Yasir Al-Sharani completely lost his sense of orientation and clumsily stabbed an attempted clearance straight to Lukaku, standing in the six-yard box. He may not be in the greatest form but he doesn’t miss chances like that, fairly breaking the net with the ferocity of his strike from a full three yards out.
Prior to that Chelsea had looked utterly in control but capable of being embarrassed by the tireless running of former Manchester United striker Odion Igahlo or the determination of Moussa Marega to shine, though he mis-controlled his best opportunity when space opened up and the Chelsea goal beckoned.
That was the story of Al Hilal’s first half They had precious little possession and that which they did have was never used effectively or incisively enough to trouble even a Chelsea side which looked slightly sluggish in the early exchanges.
Chelsea looked to have the second half under control, despite losing Jorginho at halftime, with N’Golo Kante coming on. Havertz surged down the left to lift the ball over the Saudi keeper Al-Muaiouf yet hit the post from a tight angle on 49 minutes and Ziyech’s stinging shot forced a decent save from Al-Muaiouf on 60 minutes.
Yet Al Hilal would test Chelsea once the hour has passed when they hunted for an equaliser in earnest. Matheus Pereira, formerly of West Brom, slid a lovely pass in for Marega on 63 minutes which Kepa did well to smother, rushing from his line.
Kepa did even better on 68 minutes to deny Mohamed Kanno, whose fierce shot from 20 yards saw the Basque keeper diving spectacularly to his left to tip away the strike. Chelsea hung on, denying Al Hilal clear-cut chances thereafter. But they had worked harder than they perhaps imagined.
The victory now sets the Blues up to become the third English team to win the Club World Cup, if they can beat Palmeiras. Previously, both Liverpool (2019) and Manchester United (2008) have won the competition.