After everything that has gone on over the past week or so, all of the upheaval, sparked by the sacking of Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea needed something here. Graham Potter needed something here. It was the new manager’s first experience of a Champions League tie, a detail to highlight his sudden ascent. It would be a wild night for him.
For plenty of the second half, it seemed as though Raheem Sterling had kickstarted Potter’s tenure. With a roll of his studs to set the ball and a swish of his right boot, the wide attacker found the far corner of the Red Bull Salzburg net and Chelsea could sense a similar ignition point for their Champions League campaign – after the trauma of the defeat at Dinamo Zagreb in the opening game.
Salzburg had other ideas. As Potter directed his players in fresh shapes, it was a battle for cohesion, for clarity, and the sucker punch would arrive. Thiago Silva had been a case study in how to defend, a model of composure, hearing praise from the home support. Then he erred.
The ball was his to win on the left hand side of the Chelsea defence only he mistimed his challenge on the substitute Junior Adamu, sliding in but failing to make the needed contact. Salzburg were in. Adamu crossed low and Noah Okafor made his move. Moments earlier, the substitute Dijon Kameri had flicked a header at Kepa Arrizabalaga. Now Okafor’s shot deflected off César Azpilicueta to beat the goalkeeper.
Chelsea tried to respond, Potter likewise. He threw on substitutes, searching for the solutions, the desperation increasing. His system was fluid, difficult to categorise at times. Reece James pushed high on the right, Sterling even higher on the left. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struggled as the focal point. In between them, midfielders drifted and scurried.
Two of the substitutes had openings. Hakim Ziyech could not get on to a cross and he also shot weakly at the goalkeeper, Philipp Kohn. Between times, Armando Broja lashed a shot high when he might have done better. It added up to frustration for Potter, a smattering of boos greeting the full-time whistle.
Chelsea remain bottom of their group and next are home and away ties against Milan. With Sunday’s home game against Liverpool postponed because of the pull on police resources before the Queen’s funeral, Chelsea do not play again until after the international break – at Crystal Palace on 1 October. There will be lots of time to stew on this result.
The atmosphere had been subdued counting down to kick-off; the music in the stadium slow and doleful, thoughts with Her Majesty. It was a pair of Chelsea pensioners who emerged first from the tunnel to lay wreaths and there were loud renditions of God Save The Queen. The pre-match minute of silence was impeccably observed – save for a broadcaster talking into his headset in the press box. The Chelsea bench shot him ugly looks.
Potter’s entrance was the definition of low-key – out of necessity. Wearing a black suit and tie, he ducked into his technical area, where he briefly applauded all four corners of the stadium. The response was decent.
Potter wants assurance on the ball, the confidence to play out of tight situations, but Arrizabalaga almost unhinged his team early on with a heavy pass to Jorginho on the edge of the area. Benjamin Sesko jumped in to win it and Salzburg looked as if they were in. Sesko, though, was penalised for a soft foul.
Chelsea laboured to join the dots before the interval, to create much of clearcut note. Too many times, the final action was awry or Salzburg got a body in the way. James blasted away from Strahinja Pavlovic but his cross was too far in front of Aubameyang. Sterling had the beating of his man on the other side but his deliveries could not find their target.
Chelsea’s best opening in the first half fell to Mason Mount; he fizzed wide from the edge of the area. Arrizabalaga had to be alert to tip away a curler from Sesko.
The home crowd saluted Tuchel on 21 minutes, the German having won Chelsea’s second Champions League title in 2021. They may no longer have Super Tommy Tuchel but he will always have a place in their affections. Potter’s attempt to earn it had begun with the centre-halves Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly – recruited over the summer at a combined cost of £108.8m – on the bench. Ben Chilwell joined them there. On the pitch, Chelsea ran into robust and physical opponents, none more towering than Pavlovic at the back and Sesko up top.
James sparked the breakthrough and, when Mount crossed from the right, Bernardo missed his kick to usher in Sterling. The goal would not be decisive. “It’s not the position we want to be in,” Potter said. “We have to respond.”