Chelsea headed to Spain in the knowledge that a defeat would leave qualification out of our hands and realistically not a possibility. A win on the other hand would guarantee qualification with a match to spare. In the end it was neither, a hard fought draw in an extremely open and entertaining match, albeit very nerve wracking from a Chelsea perspective!
We started the match very well, on the front foot in the Mestilla. Reece James starting at right back in a 4-3-3 was consistently a threat when overlapping throughout the first half. The first chance came from a cracking first time ball into the back post which found Willian, but he couldn’t keep his header down. Lampard switched Pulisic and Willian over a few times in the first half, and after the American had moved to the left he very nearly got on the end of a superb ball over the top from Jorginho.
Valencia lined up 4-4-2 as they had at Stamford Bridge in the first match of the group stage. Our man advantage in the midfield was put to good use as we were able to press them high up the pitch and still have Jorginho spare to cover. This made it difficult for them to play out from the back in the early stages. They had one of what would be many massive chances to score, which they did not take inside 20 minutes. Azpilicueta was caught out of position. Zouma came across to the left touchline to cover, leaving a gaping hole between him and the returning Christensen. The cross found Gomez at the far post who should have scores but somehow managed to barely make contact. A warning sign that we didn’t heed. We lost the ball in front of our own box shortly after when a Jorginho pass was intercepted. Torres (not that one) crossed to the back post, but Gomez headed straight at Kepa. Gomez missed his third good chance of the half after a loose ball in the middle broke to Soler, he played it wide to Torres and Gomez pulled his shot wide of the far post from a great position.
After getting let of the hook at one end, we created more good chances down the right, again all courtesy of Reece James. He played a one-two with Willian which left him clear of the full back, Abraham couldn’t get on the end of his ball in, but it broke to Kante who fired over the top. Another fantastic ball in from James, slightly deeper this time, was flicked on inadvertently by Kante into the path of Abraham who reacted well to guide it towards the top corner, only a world class finger tip save by Cillessen narrowly turned it over the top.
Both teams were going for this, and the tempo was high throughout the match. Valencia took the lead five minutes before half time, unfortunately the result of more suspect defending. A long ball to right-winger Torres saw Azpilicueta beaten in the air, leaving him on the ground and out of position as the ball was played down the flank to the overlapping full back. Zouma came across to cover, as Azpilicueta recovered he attempted to prevent Zouma from doing so as it left a huge gap down the inside right channel. The resulting low cross in to the back post found the untracked run of Soler who caught James ball watching, and he tucked it away some what luckily as it ricocheted from one leg to the other but still had the pace to beat Kepa. Different circumstances to the earlier chance where Zouma was pulled wide, but effectively the same issue. The back line were not functioning as a unit. Despite issues at the back, we responded in the best way possible, with an equaliser one minute later. A ball into the box by Willian was headed out to the edge of the area, but an error of judgement then saw the next header fall to Kovacic, side on to the goal, his first touch turned him ninety degrees and set up a shooting chance all in one motion, the shot was as good as the touch as it arrowed in low at the near post. What a reaction.
It was Kovacic at the heart of the next chance created moments later. He linked brilliantly with Pulisic in the middle of the pitch, Pulisic then drove at the defence in trademark fashion, drawing in the right back. Kovacic used the space created brilliantly, but when he received the ball his shot was too far towards the near post and Cillessen turned it round the post. A lively first half to say the least, it was about to get livelier.
Just before the half time whistle Tammy Abraham had a nasty fall as a defender dragged him down as he went for a header. He fell awkwardly on the defenders leg, seemingly injuring his hip. He was to be replaced at the break by Batshuayi.
We looked dangerous down the right flank in particular, but had given the ball away in bad areas and were as disorganised at the back as we had been at the start of the season.
Five minutes was all it took in the second half for us to take the lead, with a little help from VAR. Kante crossed the ball in from the right, Zouma and Garay jumped for the ball, it was knocked down to Pulisic who nipped in before the keeper and turned it home. Enter the customary long stoppage while the initial offside decision by the linesman was reviewed. The replay showed Pulisic to be onside and the goal was given. After looking at the replay a few times it was actually debatable whether Zouma even got a touch on the knock down as it appeared to come off Garay’s head. Either way the correct call had been made.
Valencia had created a host of chances in the first half, but would create even more in the second. Another big chance went begging when a long ball over the top was cut out by Christensen, Kepa had advanced to the edge of his box in anticipation of Gomez beating Christensen to it. Christensen’s interception fell to Rodrigo who took a touch when he should have hit it first time, but even then should still have scored but lifted it narrowly over the bar.
The home side were unquestionably on the front foot now, a defeat would eliminate them with a match still to play. A delightful through ball from Soler found the run in behind of Gaya. Tracked by Jorginho, an accidental tangle of legs saw both players hit the deck inside the area and the referee pointed to the spot. No VAR check here. Parejo stepped up and fired hard to Kepa’s right, but he’d gone the right way and superbly turned it round the post with his left hand.
With twenty minutes to play and still holding a 1-2 lead, Lampard looked to tighten up the defence. Jorginho was withdrawn and Emerson brought on. This triggered a switch to 5-4-1. This didn’t seem to have the desired effect. Whilst we had added an additional centre back (Azpilicueta moved in from left back) to reduce space for runners into the box, we gave up our man advantage in midfield. With tern minutes to play Wass ran on to a step over and whipped a ball in. The home side had been unlucky in front of goal all night, but got extremely lucky here as the cross sailed over Arrizabalaga and in off the far post. 2-2. The last ten minutes were frantic, open, and agonising for both sets of fans. Chelsea now looked stretched in midfield. Both teams were still going for the win, but the draw suited us more than it did them. Mount was on in place of Willian. On at least two occasions he would have been in on the break had we hit a diagonal ball out to the right wing. We had two more chances to win it. Batshuayi cut in from the right and fired at goal, the deflection looked like it would take it past the keeper but he somehow kep it out. Our final chance came from Pulisic on the left of the area, looking to roll it into Batshuayi, but there wasn’t enough on the pass. Valencia moved it out to the left flank, a tired James was caught the wrong side of overlapping left back Gaya, he crossed low to the back post where Rodrigo had a tap in, but went with his left foot rather than his right and toe punted it wide. Whatever way you looked at it we had got away with it on the night, the visitors could have wracked up seven or eight. Yes we missed chances as well, but they had managed to miss four absolute sitters, two each courtesy of Gomez and Rodrigo.
The up shot is if we beat Lille we are through. A win for Ajax against Valencia would see them top the group. If we win and the other match is a draw, we top the group thanks to a better head to head against Ajax. If Valencia win and we win then Ajax go out. If we draw or lose and Valencia draw or win, then it will be us preparing for a defence of our Europa league title. We must beat Lille if Valencia get anything at the Amsterdam Arena.
Valencia (4-4-2) 2 (Soler 40, Wass 82.)
Costa, (Gameiro 67), Garay, Gabriel, Gaya;
Torres, (Coquelin 74), Parejo, Wass, Soler;
Chelsea (4-3-3, 5-4-1 from 72 mins) 2 (Kovacic 41, Pulisic 50)
Arrizabalaga; James, Christensen, Zouma, Azpilicueta ©;
Jorginho, (Emerson 72), Kante, Kovacic;
Willian, (Mount 80), Abraham, (Batshuayi 45), Pulisic.