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Chelsea bring the fight to close in on Champions League qualification

It may seem an unusual conclusion to draw when the other game was an FA Cup Final, but this Premier League clash was the more important of Chelsea‘s two successive meetings with Leicester City for Thomas Tuchel.

The Blues are programmed to win silverware and a trophy at Wembley last weekend certainly would have been a notable achievement for a manager who did not take charge until late January. That said, this is a club which ultimately defines itself by competing for the biggest prizes and if there was a consolation from Saturday’s defeat, it was the side’s response in a hard-fought 2-1 win over Leicester in front of 8,000 fans at Stamford Bridge.

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Those supporters played their part here. Social media can distort judgments on how fans perceive certain players and while Timo Werner has undoubtedly been targeted as he amasses a quite staggering showreel of calamities in front of goal, those fortunate enough to be inside the stadium gave him nothing but fervent backing all evening.

During this game, he was caught offside for a league-worst 41st time. He ended it without a goal — he had a one chalked off for offside and another for handball — extending his run to just four from his last 42 games for club and country. But in between, he worked tirelessly to press, harry and cajole a Leicester side who were perhaps still wearing the celebrations of their maiden FA Cup success from just three days ago.

James Maddison alluded to a lengthy evening’s enjoyment in his pre-match interview and the Foxes were collectively slow into stride against a Chelsea side motivated by a sense of revenge, the surprising amount of noise this stadium can make when a fifth full, and the knowledge victory would put them within touching distance of a top-four finish.

Beating Manchester City in Porto will be tough enough without the added pressure of knowing failure to do so will mean missing out on Europe’s premier competition next term. The job is not done but it will now be Leicester most nervously looking over their shoulders after they were outfought all over the pitch.

Werner was at the centre of everything here despite not scoring. He had a goal ruled out for offside — of course — having already been harshly denied a penalty after being kicked by Youri Tielemans. He then had a second goal ruled out after handling the ball into the net from close range as Chelsea went in at the break unable to translate their vast superiority to the scoreline.

Two minutes after the restart, Antonio Rudiger finally headed the home side in front, Chelsea’s 10th goal from corners this season, the top mark in the Premier League. Underlining where a strength of one team meets an acute weakness of another, only Leeds (11) have conceded more goals from corners than Leicester (nine).

Werner was then involved in his fourth VAR incident of the evening as Wesley Fofana‘s foul on the Germany international was adjudged to have been inside the box on review. Jorginho stepped up and with his trademark run-up calmly stroked home the penalty.

That should have been that, but Leicester triggered a nervy finish when substitute Kelechi Iheanacho fired home with 14 minutes left after a Chelsea giveaway at the back. The supporters kept Chelsea at it, serenading Werner throughout and that show of support might enable him to show the same confidence on the field which he has off it.

“The first half was a bit like a mirror of the whole season for me,” he told the BBC. “Always close, then at the end not really. When you are young and in the final of the Champions League it’s no problem.”

Chelsea still needed to survive a shocking late miss by Ayoze Perez, who fired over unmarked from 16 yards out after Ricardo Pereira had delivered an excellent cut-back from the right flank.

A brief altercation involving most of the players — with Daniel Amartey an unused substitute yet heavily involved after he was seen throwing the Chelsea pennant to the floor during Saturday’s celebrations — brought a literal fight to the physical one they had taken to Leicester all evening.

There are two games left in Chelsea’s season, but they have their destiny in their own hands. After successive defeats against Arsenal and Leicester last week, Tuchel’s rhetoric suggested he is desperate to re-establish their old rhythm.

“It’s no time now for extra praise,” he said. “Enjoy, shut up, enjoy your free day and get ready for Sunday. I don’t feel comfortable now celebrating, I just say what’s needed.”

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