Football Features

Substitutions prove vital as much-changed Chelsea reach third semi-final under Thomas Tuchel

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:25, 22 December 2021


Chelsea have reached the semi-finals of the EFL Cup for the third time in five seasons as they beat Brentford 2-0 on Wednesday night.

Brentford were Chelsea’s third Premier League opponent of the tournament this season, with the Blues knocking out Aston Villa and Southampton on penalties, both at Stamford Bridge. Although Chelsea went into this game as favourites, when the starting XIs were announced, their chances may have dropped slightly.

Hampered by injuries and illness, Chelsea handed starts to three academy players at the Brentford Community Stadium, all of whom were making their debuts. Harvey Vale had previously been on the bench for Chelsea but had never made it onto the pitch before Wednesday, joined by Jude Soonsup-Bell and Xavier Simons. With a combined age of 53 (17, 18 and 18) and a combined number of 186 (54, 64 and 68), this was certainly a trio that wouldn’t be starting together on any other occasion.

And the boys were alright. Vale in particular did not look out of place against Premier League opposition, Chelsea’s most dangerous player in the first half and having their best chance. Soonsup-Bell was the leader of the attack and had his moments while Simons linked up well with Cesar Azpilicueta on the right flank, though Brentford did look to target him.

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But it was Chelsea’s more experienced players, coming on from the bench, that eventually won the game for the visitors. Both Soonsup-Bell and Mateo Kovacic were taken off at half-time in what were surely pre-arranged changes as the two players were not at full fitness. They were replaced by Jorginho and Christian Pulisic, both of whom would play their part in the win.

Other changes saw Mason Mount, Reece James and N’Golo Kante come on from the bench, the latter surprising many who had followed the build-up. In his pre-match press conference, Tuchel had ruled Kante out of the trip to Brentford, having played him for the full 90 minutes against Wolves at the weekend when not fully fit.

“What we did with N’Golo Kante for 90 minutes was close to irresponsible,” he told reporters.

“Will he be involved against Brentford? Simply no. We cannot do this and I will not do it.

“We will now give him time to recover and prepare for Aston Villa and this is the situation.”

But play Kante did, with the Frenchman coming on for the final 14 minutes of the game, replacing Ross Barkley who had struggled. He immediately looked a class above the rest of the players on the pitch and just four minutes after coming on he made a telling difference. Receiving the ball on the edge of the Brentford area, Kante showed excellent footwork to escape two defenders and play it out wide to fellow substitute James.

The wing-back put a wicked cross into the box that was converted by Pontus Jansson. It was rather fitting that a Brentford player would score the opening goal for Chelsea given how much the Blues had struggled in the attacking areas, but James and Kante’s contribution was key.

Five minutes later, two more substitutes helped Chelsea go 2-0 up and secure their spot in the semi-finals. Chasing what appeared to be a lost cause into the box, Pulisic was fouled by Brentford goalkeeper Alvaro Fernandez, with Andre Marinner having no option but to point to the spot.

Jorginho stepped up and converted, as he almost always does, his seventh goal of the season – all of which have been penalties. No Chelsea player has scored more goals than Jorginho across all competitions this season, with the Italian joining Mason Mount.

“We knew we could have five big changes with a lot of quality, and also fresh legs because they were not overused,” Tuchel said of his changes after the game.

“That helped us a lot and was needed. I’m a big supporter of five changes.”

The win, deserved over 90 minutes, also secured Chelsea’s third semi-final in 11 months since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard. The previous two have led to finals, including that Champions League win. Will the same be on the cards in the EFL Cup?

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