ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Roman Abramovich only clapped his hands once when the moment came. Sitting cross-legged in the VIP area of the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, the Chelsea owner gave a high-five with his assistant as a smile broke out on his face, briefly visible with his black mask down after taking a sip of his ‘Still water.
The value of a Club World Cup triumph might be more seriously questioned in Europe than the rest of the world, but the 2-1 victory over Palmeiras in Saturday’s final crowns the Blues as the best team in club of the world. It’s a defining night in a 19-year journey for Abramovich, who bought Chelsea in 2003 with the express aim of world domination.
The way they rose to the top in those 120 minutes, securing the 21st trophy of his reign, is emblematic of his generously funded approach: two of the three most expensive signings in Chelsea history have scored the goals, the £97.5m striker Romelu Lukaku with a towering header and £71m midfielder Kai Havertz with a 117th-minute penalty either side of Raphael Veiga’s kick that forced extra time .
Abramovich quickly took to the field, flanked by executive director Marina Granovskaia. The pair embraced head coach Thomas Tuchel, who arrived just over 24 hours early to help deliver this latest success, before engaging in a lengthy chat with technical and performance director Petr Cech.
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Cech was a player when Chelsea lost their only previous final in this competition, ten years ago against Corinthians, and he addressed the team here in Abu Dhabi ahead of a training session earlier this week, explaining why this was an opportunity worth seizing.
In 2012, Cech felt that Chelsea were unprepared in the belief that other awards were more important and, in any case, they believed they would win it at some point given how much they had become good. Cech enjoyed a glorious career but never got another chance to compete in a Club World Cup.
Only five clubs have won all existing major trophies: Juventus, Ajax, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and now Chelsea. It’s the elated company that Abramovich expects to keep, the mission statement that has inspired a ruthless culture of manager hiring and firing and an investment of more than £2billion.
“We won everything,” Chelsea fans often sing. Now it’s really true.
He remained in dialogue with Cech as the Chelsea squad gathered in the spotlight and captain Cesar Azpilicueta lifted the trophy. Minutes later, the Russian billionaire stood slightly apart from everyone with his arms behind his back as he watched the celebrations before Cech joined him.
This particular duo – with former props John Terry and Didier Drogba also in attendance – know better than anyone the trials and tribulations Chelsea have endured on their way to the top of the game. They will also know the difficulty of staying there.
Those who believe that this competition occupies the curious position of technically being the highest honor offered, but simultaneously only a footnote to their season in the context of Premier League and Champions League pursuits will seen enough to worry them about the challenges ahead.
The Palmeiras were tricky opponents, not least because of the crowd of 15,000 that transformed this particular corner of Abu Dhabi into something resembling a suburb of Sao Paulo, a sea of green and white visible in large sections. on all four sides of this stadium. The noise, even an hour before kick-off, was deafening and continued into the game, provided a defiant soundtrack to their team’s containment and counterattack game plan, willingly ceding territory and possession in a bid to expose Chelsea during the break.
It almost worked. Dudu squandered more than a presentable counter-attacking situation and Chelsea worked to create plenty, cumbersome and often careless with the ball.
Tuchel, who missed Wednesday’s semi-final win over Al Hilal as he isolated himself in London following a positive COVID-19 test, made some surprising changes, dropping Jorginho and Hakim Ziyech while restoring Mason Mount in the starting XI. Edouard Mendy’s return has been tough on Kepa Arrizabalaga but understandable given the form of the newly crowned Africa Cup of Nations champion.
Mount barely lasted half an hour as he appeared to be battling a recurrence of the ankle injury that has sidelined him of late, with Christian Pulisic being introduced ahead of Ziyech to replace him. The changes appeared to contribute to a scrappy display, but a change, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Marcus Alonso, paid off when the England international created the opening goal from a left-back position. Lukaku met Hudson-Odoi’s cross in the 55th minute with an imposing header, a superb leap worthy of the occasion and his wages.
VAR was Chelsea’s enemy, then later their friend. In the 64th minute, Thiago Silva was ruled after review for handling in the box as he challenged Gustavo Gomez. Raphael Veiga scored the ensuing penalty.
What followed was, frankly, a bit of a mess and the clearest indication that Tuchel still has some work to do in figuring out how to make Chelsea more powerful against teams ready to defend to the extent that Palmeiras have done here.
There were at least two system changes, Lukaku and Hudson-Odoi were taken off when the scores were level and both enjoyed encouraging nights and Pulisic was invited to play at left-back. Pulisic and Ziyech were seen at one point arguing as they pointed in different directions. The confusion was evident as Chelsea struggled to reassert themselves and the game looked certain to drift into a penalty shootout.
Instead, with three minutes remaining in extra time, a shot from Azpilicueta hit Palmeiras defender Luan in the arm and Australian referee Chris Beath took a second look before awarding a penalty.
Cleverly, Azpilicueta absorbed attempts by several Palmeiras players to push him away as he held the ball over the point before handing it to Havertz. The man who scored the winning goal in last May’s Champions League final against Manchester City delivered the world crown this time, sending goalkeeper Weverton the wrong way.
Luan’s misery was complete when he was sent off after another VAR review for hacking Havertz as he crossed, but Palmeiras’ run was already over. As the referee pondered the decision, Abramovich signaled to one of the two guards posted behind his seat that he wanted to step onto the pitch full time.
Abramovich has been a rare visitor to Stamford Bridge these days, since his visa application was withdrawn amid a diplomatic spat between England and Russia in 2018. But he was in Porto to watch his side win the League champions and he was never going to miss that.
Tuchel knows, however, that what’s next is never far from the owner’s mind.