Wednesday, February 8

Kai Havertz sparkles against Norwich but Chelsea’s uneasy reality is laid bare | premier league

Freeze our assets. Curtail our hotel allowance. Link our 19 years of unbroken success to the enabling of a blood-stained dictator. It seems the show really does go on. For now anyway, as on a crisp, clear Norfolk evening the players of Chelsea dished up an entertaining Premier League defeat of a game and energetic Norwich.

Welcome to Chelsea, the afterlife. A place that felt, as the Norwich fans sang about dirty Russian money, as the Chelsea fans serenaded their yacht-bound owner, like another lurch into the deeply strange parallel timeline of football and geopolitics in the year 2022.

News of the sanctions imposed on Roman Abramovich had emerged shortly after 9am on Thursdayyesterday morning. By lunchtime the canal-side boulevards of Norwich’s pedestrianized city center were thronged with Chelsea supporters singing the afternoon away. “We’ve got Tommy Tuchel: he knows just what to do.” Does he though? And if so, could he share it with the rest of us? Because nothing right now makes a great deal of sense.

Later on, as the Chelsea fans kept up an early wave of noise close to kick off there was a valedictory, Viking funeral-style air about their boisterous good spirits, a sense of good cheer, of event-glamor about all this. Humans are odd creatures. Give us a tribe, a hill to die on: any hill, and often that’s enough.

It would be convention at this point to state that this was a game Chelsea needed to win to maintain their stroll towards next season’s Champions League and another step into the unblemished future. Although right now all of this must come asterisked with uncertainty and hypothesis.

Tuchel had picked an everyday Chelsea team for this most otherworldly of occasions, rotating some key parts but retaining the first-choice forward line that has Kai Havertz settled as the focal point. Tuchel could be excused feeling a little demob-unhappy. One thing does seem certain: Chelsea finally have a manager they can’t, under current UK law, actually sack.

Otherwise it was business as usual. With one minute gone at Carrow Road, Chelsea’s fans were singing “Roman Abramovich”. With two minutes gone they were singing “We’ve won it all”, greeted by chants of “You’ve lost it all” from the Norwich fans. With three minutes gone they were 1-0 up, Trevoh Chalobah heading in Mason Mount’s corner. Say what you like about the oligarchical system of Vladimir Putin’s Russia: it has helped create a very effective football team.

With 14 minutes gone Mount made it 2-0, teed up by Havertz who looked, as he has done lately, a whirl of ceaseless movement and sharp edges close to goal. And as the game drifted on there was time to reflect on one of the strangest days in English football history. It isn’t just the fact that the most successful Premier League club of the past two decades have become, at a stroke, a distressed asset. It is also the way the uneasy reality of the last 19 years, the reality of that unceasing Stamford Bridge buffet, has been stripped away.

There are two points worth making about all this. First, the government’s decision to sanction seven Russian oligarchs has little to do with Chelsea. What is or isn’t fair for football fans makes up a tiny portion of this picture. Unrecoverable hotel costs? Northing to do on Saturday? Tell it to the besieged civilians of Ukraine.

Teemu Pukki gives Norwich hope with his late penalty. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

And second, Chelsea are, for the time being, absolutely cooked. The club can’t generate income, can’t manage the payroll, can’t sell any tickets (those stacks of unsold tickets have now become non-fungible tokens, to be traded for curiosity value, like a stopped watch from the deck of theTitanic).

The players were getting on a plane at Gatwick on Thursday morning when news broke that this thing, this endlessly giving hand, had been chopped off at the knees by the British government. How many are already checking the precise location of the ejector seat button? How many calls had been made by lunchtime to Reece James’s agent?

More pressing, how will Chelsea’s players make that £20,000 away day allowance stretch after this final Norfolk blow-out? Get the room service in while you can, lads. Dismantle the trouser press. For tomorrow we’re in the serviced apart-hotels. There is at least something brilliantly prescient about Chelsea’s choice of Liquidator as the pre-match walk out music at Stamford Bridge through the Abramovich years.

It has to be said, Chelsea’s players were undaunted, unscrambled and hungrily engaged with the task in hand, even if they were made to hold on for the last 10 minutes as Norwich pushed hard after pulling one back though Teemu Pukki’s penalty. Havertz’s late third killed the game. And Chelsea, for now, roll on.

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