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Christian Pulisic helps Chelsea past Real Madrid and into the Champions League final

Wednesday May 5, 2021

European club soccer will bestow its most illustrious trophy to an English Premier League team, a scenario ensured Wednesday in a nervy atmosphere in west London when Chelsea defeated Real Madrid to join Manchester City in the Champions League final May 29 in Istanbul.

The Blues booked their third berth to the final by ousting the 13-time champions, 2-0, for a 3-1 aggregate victory.

Their triumph set up an all-England final for the second time in three seasons, following the Liverpool-Tottenham Hotspur clash in 2019.

It will also feature two U.S. men’s national team players meeting in the title game: Chelsea attacker Christian Pulisic and Manchester City backup goalkeeper Zack Steffen, both Pennsylvania natives. A U.S. player has never appeared in the final.

Timo Werner provided the lead in the 28th minute and, after several missed opportunities by Chelsea, the substitute Pulisic assisted on Mason Mount’s 85th-minute goal to all but secure passage.

It was a deserving victory. Although the outcome hung in the balance until almost the end, Chelsea was unfazed by the Spanish titans and far superior in every facet.

Pulisic was conspicuously absent from Chelsea’s starting lineup, eight days after scoring in the first leg in Madrid. He had been in terrific form since returning to regular duty six weeks ago, scoring four goals and influencing the attack with confident runs.

Manager Thomas Tuchel did not drop him Wednesday because of injury or a slip in performance. Rather, he selected a player in supreme form, Kai Havertz, who scored twice Saturday in a Premier League victory over Fulham, and paired him with German teammate Werner.

Although the Blues earned a draw in Madrid, they believed they could have won and taken a commanding edge into the return leg.

Nonetheless, the onus Wednesday was on Real Madrid because, if no one scored, Chelsea would advance on the away-goal tiebreaker. And that’s the way it played out at the start, the visitors probing for opportunity and Chelsea taking a physical and disruptive approach.

Since his appointment in January, Tuchel has emphasized defense. Wednesday’s result gave the Blues 17 shutouts in 24 matches across all competitions since his arrival. Chelsea has conceded multiple goals only twice.

Chelsea did not sit back, though, and the opportunities began to surface. Werner was a step offside while scoring in the 18th minute.

At the other end, Edouard Mendy, Chelsea’s 6-foot-6 goalkeeper, extended fully to his left to push aside Karim Benzema’s 20-yard bid.

Chelsea then went ahead. Tight, one-touch passing unlocked Real Madrid’s central resistance. N’Golo Kante set up Havertz for a chip over charging goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The shot struck the crossbar and floated to Werner a step from the target for the easiest of headers.

Mendy preserved the lead before halftime with a leaping touch save on Benzema’s close-range header.

After intermission, Chelsea smelled blood. Another goal would have left little doubt about its place in the final. Havertz almost got it less than two minutes into the half, heading Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross off the crossbar. Mount inexplicably missed the mark after drawing Courtois off his line.

Chelsea was as comfortable as a team with a one-goal lead could be. Real Madrid labored to sustain rhythm and pressure.

Chelsea had two huge chances to expand the lead, but Courtois used his right foot to thwart Havertz in a one-on-one situation and defender Federico Valverde blocked Kante’s shot at the end of a swift counterattack charged by Werner.

More glorious opportunities had passed without a killer goal, allowing Real Madrid to cling to hope.

Pulisic made his entrance in the 67th minute at Werner’s expense, bringing pace and aggression. Chelsea squandered another chance moments later when Thiago Silva’s header off a corner kick zipped wide.

Not seriously threatened, the Blues appeared on their way to victory. Pulisic and Mount left no doubt.

Pulisic was calm and composed with the ball deep on the right side of the box. He then crossed to Mount at the edge of the six-yard box for a one-time stab.

The tension was broken. The Blues of Chelsea were on their way to a showdown with the Sky Blues of Manchester City.


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