Wednesday, June 29

Will Christian Pulisic start for Chelsea in the Champions League final? Addressing the big question facing America’s biggest soccer star

Shortly after Christian Pulisic achieved the most glorious moment of his fledgling football career, he stood in front of a bulletin board and faced a television camera and microphone poised to broadcast his joy across the planet. He had been the main agent in Chelsea Football Club’s advance to the final of the UEFA Champions League, the most important annual match in the world’s preeminent sport. His pride and joy were obvious.

And also their resentment.

They were all justified, for sure.

“Very frustrated,” he said, then shrugged so hard he could have pinched a trapeze (video below). “Um, yeah. Not much more to say. I wanted to play from the beginning, as I always do. I’ve had to keep testing myself, over and over again. But, as always, I draw near to God and He gives me strength. With that behind me, nothing can stop me, really. “

In the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final series against Real Madrid, Pulisic had scored the away goal that gave the Blues a substantial lead for the second leg at Stamford Bridge. Despite that goal, however, and the fact that he had performed very well during his 66 minutes against Real, Pulisic was not in the starting lineup for the second leg.

As of the April 13 second game of the Champions League quarterfinals against Porto, Pulisic has started eight times in 12 games, including that competition, the FA Cup and the Premier League. Each of those games, due to Chelsea being in close competition for a place in the 2021-22 Champions League, had tremendous consequences. So while there is no guarantee it will be on the team sheet when manager Thomas Tuchel submits it before Saturday’s 3pm EDT final against Manchester City, it is more likely not.

If it didn’t start, Pulisic obviously wouldn’t be happy. However, judging from his performance in the second leg against Real Madrid, he is likely to channel any displeasure in his performance, as he did through a brilliant effort after entering that game midway through the second half and generate a decisive goal for his teammate Mason Mount.

“In the first game it was what Christian did. That, to me, is a typical Christian performance: being able to terrorize the defense, have an impact by scoring goals and be dangerous, “USMNT head coach Greg Berhalter told Sporting News. “What I really liked about the second game was his mentality and his tenacity off the bench. Because that is not easy. And the coach is in a situation where he wants Christian to come in and make a difference, and he definitely makes that difference. And that was really cool to see.

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“You can understand that there can be disappointment in not starting the game, and the only way to respond is to show it on the field. And that’s exactly what he did. “

It would have been easy for Pulisic to overlook that bench, if one wishes to call it that, after Chelsea made advancement to the Super Bowl of world football.

Tuchel’s decision not to start Pulisic was based on tactical logic: with Chelsea having the goal tiebreaker away after the first leg, the first priority was to prevent Real Madrid from matching it at Stamford Bridge. So Pulisic’s attack ability was a little less necessary. Tuchel also expressed his preference for a taller player, 6-foot-2-inch Kai Havertz, to help deal with the set-piece defense that had been a problem with Karim Benzema’s tying goal in the first leg. And, in the event that Chelsea gave up a goal and had an emergency need for Pulisic’s ability to create and finish goals, it was available on the bench.

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Pulisic, however, has not followed the easy path to reach such a lofty position at age 22. He was playing in big games against the best players in the world at 17 years old. He nearly pushed an aging and declining American men’s national team to the 2018 World Cup with seven goals and seven assists in 13 qualifying matches while still a teenager. He moved to Chelsea for a transfer fee of $ 70.4 million at age 20. Although he made a statement with his game in those final minutes against Real Madrid, perhaps it was not enough to leave him there.

“Oh, I love it. Because I think I should start,” Fox Sports studio principal analyst Alexi Lalas told SN. “I said a while ago, I said, it’s too good for this Chelsea team. That’s how good it is. It is. And that’s why I want to see him on the field. And that he has that drive, that intensity and that desire to succeed, that’s what makes all great athletes regardless of nationality. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. That should. To be welcome.

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“Keep in mind, for Tuchel or whoever his coach is: they should want that. If you are a player who is satisfied that you are not playing, I say that something is wrong with you. “

Lalas admires Pulisic’s instinct to attack first when receiving the ball, something that has waned as the sport has shifted more towards possession and the gradual building of offensive movement.

“Your first thought of moving forward is reserved for some real elite company and elite teams,” Lalas said. “I don’t think there is a team in the world that, if given the opportunity, would not want Christian Pulisic. He’s rightfully one of the world’s elite talents. “

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Chelsea have a host of attacking options available to deploy against Manchester City. Most of the time lining up the team in a 3-4-1-2 formation, Tuchel has World Cup champion Olivier Giroud, young English talents Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi and Moroccan veteran Hakim Ziyech available. . And those are the guys who haven’t been playing that much lately.

Among the regular holders are England’s Mason Mount and Germans Timo Werner and Havertz, acquired last summer for a combined $ 146 million. That’s the competition for Pulisic every day in training, every day as Tuchel reflects on the best 11 to play against Manchester City.

“I feel like when you compare and contrast what he has in his locker compared to the other players, I think he has separated himself as the most ruthless, deadly and dangerous type of gamer,” Brian Dunseth, host of the Counter Attack Program on SiriusXM FC told SN. “That is not disrespecting anyone else in that position. And I don’t compare him to Mason Mount, who is more of a training player. I look at Timo Werner or Ziyech or Callum Hudson-Odoi, and I see Christian so comfortable with the ball, with several players closing it and finding a solution. I look at Christian and see his first positive touch, running towards the players each time.

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“I think he is such a complete player in general. The only thing that worries me is what I’m sure everyone cares about: just making sure his body can handle the rigors of a lot of games and those little annoyances he gets because he’s such an explosive type of player. “

That has been the fundamental problem for Pulisic since he moved to Chelsea. He has missed a total of 25 games in all competitions over two seasons with injuries to the hamstring, abdominal muscles and foot.

The dismissal of manager Frank Lampard in January also complicated Pulisic’s situation. Pulisic had played for Tuchel early in his Dortmund career, and that was expected to provide a small advantage in the fight for playing time, but Pulisic was not even an available replacement for two of Tuchel’s first Premier matches. League.

It wasn’t until Pulisic returned in late March from a successful career with the United States men’s national team that he began to fully join the Chelsea attack. And that also seemed to elevate the Blues.

“He is one of the scariest, most impressive and talented young players I have seen in a long time,” CBS Sports analyst Micah Richards told reporters this week on a conference call. “He’s had injury issues, but I think he’s having a streak of games now. … And I think he could be the difference. We are talking about Chelsea on the counterattack. You can make something individually brilliant. So I think he can have a huge impact on this game if he was a starter or if he came off the bench. “

That’s one way of looking at it; it’s just not the way Pulisic would prefer. When he told NBC Sports’ Tim Howard, “I want to win this,” it was obvious that Pulisic wasn’t simply referring to wanting to be a member of the prevailing team.

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