Romelu Lukaku’s gift-wrapped goal proved enough for Chelsea to overcome a resolute Al Hilal 1-0 and reach the Club World Cup final.
Belgium hitman Lukaku spurned a clutch of fine openings but could not miss when presented with Yasir Alshahrani’s unwitting deflection just yards from goal.
The 28-year-old lashed into the net in Abu Dhabi, to end a five-match goal drought and book the Blues’ spot in Saturday’s final against Brazilians Palmeiras.
Chelsea will understandably cite jet lag and their hectic schedule for an off-kilter showing, and boss Thomas Tuchel’s continued absence due to Covid isolation doubtless also carries weight.
Assistants Arno Michels and Zsolt Low oversaw another win following Saturday’s 2-1 FA Cup fourth-round victory over Plymouth though.
The Stamford Bridge men had Kepa Arrizabalaga to thank for the clean sheet, as the Spain stopper pulled off two vital, high-class saves in another assured performance at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium.
Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal rocked the Blues at times as boss Leonardo Jardim sent out a disciplined and well-drilled set of players who pushed the Londoners right to the end.
Chelsea still warranted the win however, and will now have the chance to claim the club’s first Club World Cup crown.
The Blues lost out to Brazil’s Corinthians back in 2012, and captain Cesar Azpilicueta will be among those aiming to blot out that loss by lifting the title this time around.
As the Blues were forced to grind their way to the win, this was a night for the likes of hard men Mateo Kovacic and Toni Rudiger.
Boss Tuchel previously effectively described that pair as men you would not want to meet down a dark alley.
Time and again midfielder Kovacic and centre-back Rudiger blocked off Al Hilal’s routes to goal in a clash where industry trumped ingenuity.
Chelsea started the night slowly, perhaps to be expected after their quick turnaround from Saturday’s FA Cup clash with Plymouth and flying just hours after that slender 2-1 win.
Moussa Marega and Matheus Pereira impressed for the Saudis, as Chelsea were often put under relative pressure.
The Blues coped admirably overall however, denying Al Hilal any cast-iron chances.
Marcos Alonso was left to breathe a sigh of relief when Marega was wrong-footed by his missed clearing header, otherwise the ex-Porto striker would have been in on goal.
Lukaku failed to make the most of several fine openings for Chelsea meanwhile, most notably failing to apply a tap-in finish to Azpilicueta’s low cross.
But just when Chelsea started to fear drawing a blank at the break, Lukaku rifled a big gift into the back of the net.
Kai Havertz’s deflected cross rebounded off the nonplussed Alshahrani, with the ball dropping right into the unmarked Lukaku just yards out.
The big Belgium striker duly made no mistake, and Chelsea went on to carry that 1-0 lead into half-time.
Havertz scythed in from the left and dinked a neat effort only to see the ball rebound off a post, as Chelsea started the second half in style.
N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho at the break, and the French dynamo wasted precious little time in upping the Blues’ pace.
Kante was heavily involved before Lukaku nodded down to Ziyech on the edge of the area, with the Morocco forward lashing a shot that forced Al Hilal keeper Abdullah Almuaiouf into a smart parried save.
Chelsea let their comfort beguile them just long enough for Pereira to slip a smart pass through for Marega.
The powerful striker cut in on goal but Kepa produced a fine save – then whipped his arms wildly in a bid to generate renewed impetus for the Blues.
Kepa came to Chelsea’s rescue again to palm away Mohamed Kanno’s thunderous effort as the Blues continued to live dangerously.
Pereira fired just wide on the turn moments later, with Chelsea ignoring the growing warning signs from an organised and motivated Al Hilal.
Jang Hyun-soo headed over from a corner to extend the Riyad side’s spell of dominance, with Chelsea hanging on before replacement Mason Mount’s low strike was deflected wide.
Lukaku beat the offside trap but did not have the pace to stride clear, so teed up Mount for a threatening drive until the deflection.
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