Kai Havertz vindicated his manager’s decision to hand him a starting berth in the League Cup final over Romelu Lukaku, despite Chelsea coming up short in the Wembley showcase as Liverpool won 11-10 on penalties.
Much of the pre-match narrative was dominated by Lukaku and whether the struggling Chelsea forward would be given the nod at Wembley.
The Belgian striker has endured an indifferent, somewhat polarising return to Stamford Bridge since completing a mega switch from Inter Milan in the summer transfer window, struggling for goalscoring form and consistency issues — his bombshell interview with Sky Italia certainly not helping the latter.
The self-inflicted wounds from that media sit down appeared to heal over after initially being dropped from the team back in December, but Tuchel has now snubbed the powerful sharp-shooter for the past two games, both of which were season-defining matches for Chelsea.
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Havertz was selected ahead of Lukaku in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Lille in midweek, and he produced a masterclass that firmly put paid to the Belgian’s infamous seven-touch showing in the Premier League against Crystal Palace the game prior.
The Blues played with a lot more fluidity and attacking cohesion in the final third, with Havertz opening the scoring as the reigning European champions ran out 2-0 victors. His link up play was chalk and cheese to the often one-dimensional back-to-goal antics of Lukaku, particularly at Selhurst Park.
“Havertz reminds me of a [Roberto] Firmino for Liverpool, someone that knits it all together, he was a nightmare to mark tonight,” Chelsea icon Joe Cole said after the match against Lille.
“If you think about his form at the end of last season when he was able to drop off and runners go behind him, his best position is a No. 9, but that’s obviously bad for Lukaku.”
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Bad indeed as Tuchel once again opted to pick Havertz over Lukaku for Sunday’s Wembley showpiece, with the German explaining that he wanted a more mobile forward to head his attack and cope with the fervent pressing line of Jurgen Klopp’s ball-playing defence.
Tuchel told Sky Sports before the match: “If you look at the history he starts a lot of matches but today is about, for us, we think it’s a bit more about running and running behind the line.
“Kai [Havertz], Christian [Pulisic] and Mason [Mount] are today, from a tactical point of view, from a characteristic of their style, a better fit and it’s very nice to have Romelu from the bench to influence the game hopefully in a decisive manner.”
The tactical manoeuvre certainly seemed to work as the Blues pressed and probed in the opening minutes, with Havertz the creative catalyst behind their early chances, notably a near tap-in from Christian Pulisic. Momentum soon swung in Liverpool’s favour, but Chelsea had another glorious chance to break the deadlock on the stroke of half-time, with Havertz again the architect.
Playing through Mason Mount, Havertz cut through Liverpool’s defence like a hot knife through butter, but the England international could only find the woodwork, striking the post from a one-v-one as Caoimhin Kelleher remained rooted to the spot.
Indeed Havertz created a whopping four chances in the first half despite Liverpool largely dominating possession, and that pattern continued after the restart as he became the first player to create five or more chances in an League Cup final since David Silva in 2016, also against Liverpool (five) — Trent Alexander-Arnold followed up shortly after by beating that feat on six.
Kai Havertz is the first player to create 5+ chances in an EFL Cup final since David Silva in 2016, also against Liverpool (5).
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The German attacker was unlucky to have a goal chalked out for offside, but the build-up play and the eventual disallowed finish underlined a menace about his movement in the final third and the threat he posed — a constant facet of his game throughout the entire 120 minutes.
Liverpool ultimately stole the show in the end after regulation, and extra time, failed to separate the two sides, but Havertz once against showed up in a final, possibly pushing Lukaku further down the pecking order and reaffirming his status as a ‘big-game player’.