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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jacob Steinberg at Stamford Bridge

Chelsea lift some pressure on Potter after Fofana header edges out Leeds

Wesley Fofana scores for Chelsea against Leeds
Wesley Fofana scores for Chelsea against Leeds. Photograph: Chloe Knott/Danehouse/Getty Images

Up in the directors’ box, Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali were deep in conversation. Chelsea’s co-owners had witnessed a rare thing: a goal, a win, hints of a tactical plan. It so easily could have gone in a different direction. Chelsea were a bag of nerves during the dying stages and although they were in no position to turn down three precious points it is doubtful whether an energetic but flawed victory over struggling opposition will be enough to silence Graham Potter’s naysayers.

Unfortunately for Potter, his critics will be waiting to see whether his side can salvage their Champions League campaign when they host Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday. This triumph, Chelsea’s third in 16 games, was far from complete. There was the usual edginess in attack before the winner arrived from a set-piece, Wesley Fofana heading home, and there was even some dissatisfaction in the stands late on, the crowd howling when a counterattack ended with their team playing it safe instead of trying to kill Leeds off with a second goal.

Caution was the way forward by that stage. Potter made defensive substitutions midway through the second half, inviting Leeds on, and Chelsea almost blew it. Not for nothing did Javi Gracia bemoan his team’s lack of luck. Luke Ayling flicked a header against the woodwork in the 90th minute and Leeds, a point above the bottom three, were entitled to feel they deserved a draw.

Equally the visitors, who lacked bite without Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo, must become more ruthless. They remain far too wasteful and it was also odd to see them make such a diffident start given that they could have sealed Potter’s fate by handing Chelsea a third consecutive defeat.

Wesley Fofana punches the air and is congratulated by Chelsea teammates Benoît Badiashile and Enzo Fernández
Goalscorer Wesley Fofana punches the air and is congratulated by Chelsea teammates Benoît Badiashile (left) and Enzo Fernández (right). Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

Potter urged his team on, turning away in disappointment when Fofana nodded an early corner over. This was never going to be a stress-free afternoon.

The early signs were positive for Chelsea, the players fighting for their manager, a flexible 3-4-2-1 system functioning well, but anxiety lurked at every turn. Kalidou Koulibaly’s habit of being drawn out of position in central defence was a familiar worry and while Chelsea were on top during the first half there was still a smattering of boos when they went in level at half-time.

The frustration was that Chelsea could have buried Leeds in the first 25 minutes. They looked united, even though they were missing the leadership of Thiago Silva in defence and Reece James on the right. Enzo Fernández and Mateo Kovacic were sharp against Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie in midfield. Ben Chilwell was outstanding at left wing-back. Raheem Sterling tormented Junior Firpo.

But Chelsea’s struggle to turn their superiority into goals was not a surprise. After 21 minutes Sterling released Kai Havertz. Was this the moment? Or was a forward with two goals since Christmas going to dither and allow Illan Meslier to make a smothering save? No prizes for guessing correctly.

At least Chelsea were making chances. Moments later they carved Leeds open again, slick interplay allowing Sterling to beat Firpo and cut the ball back to João Félix, who watched a gorgeous effort come back off the bar.

There was more angst when Fernández found Chilwell, who prodded wide. The pace slowed and Leeds started to create a few openings.

Chelsea had to improve. The long list of absentees did not stop them naming a team worth more than £500m and there were better signs at the start of the second half, Félix dancing through, Sterling turning Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s cross over.

Chelsea, who have scored five times since the turn of the year, made the pressure tell. Chilwell delivered a corner, Leeds forgot how to mark and Fofana leapt above McKennie before heading past Meslier.

Now it was down to Leeds to test Chelsea’s nerve. Gracia called Wilfried Gnonto, Mateo Joseph and Sam Greenwood off the bench and Adams went close, curling just wide. Georginio Rutter, who is yet to score since joining Leeds, spurned a glorious opportunity.

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Chelsea retreated, Denis Zakaria and Conor Gallagher replacing Sterling and Félix. Kovacic, captaining the team in Silva’s absence, went off and the nerves grew. Fofana, Koulibaly and Benoît Badiashile were under pressure at the back.

Leeds, who have two away wins this season, had plenty of opportunities and Chelsea’s defending did not exactly scream authority. Dortmund will be tougher.

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