Thomas Tuchel fear becomes reality as Mateo Kovacic argues with Leeds supporters in Chelsea win
The moment Thomas Tuchel feared arrived in the 24th minute at Elland Road. Mateo Kovacic received possession from Mason Mount and attempted to spin away from pressure. Yet there was no escaping Daniel James. The Leeds United winger arrived at such pace and flew into his challenge with such velocity there was only one outcome.
Kovacic was caught just above the ankle by James' studs; the Chelsea midfielder's pain immediate and evident. As the Croatian rolled away, referee Anthony Taylor did the inevitable. James was shown a straight red card, much to the dismay of those Leeds supporters inside Elland Road. But there could be no argument.
There was no instant recovery from Kovacic. He received several minutes of treatment and while he did attempt to continue, it was to no avail. The 28-year-old hobbled off with less than half an hour played and his left ankle was immediately iced. With fewer than three days until the FA Cup final against Liverpool, that is a major concern for Tuchel, who was wary of his players suffering injury ahead of the contest.
The challenge from James on Kovacic embodied the atmosphere inside Elland Road. Leeds supporters were fired up, they needed to be given their side are in the midst of a relegation battle. But some of their chants broached into unpleasantness, especially during a period in which the game was stopped due to a medical emergency involving one of the travelling Chelsea supporters.
Kovacic was also bombarded with abuse as he left the pitch. And it continued when he got to the dugout – Leeds supporters banged on the perspex sheets that protected the Chelsea players and it resulted in Kovacic engaging in an angry confrontation with the perpetrators.
On the pitch, however, Leeds showed less fight. Chelsea were ahead inside three minutes – and it was a wonderfully worked goal. The ball started in the Blues backline and was moved through midfield and eventually to Reece James. The academy graduate then had to pick his moment and his man. He settled upon Mason Mount, who curled his shot into the top corner. It was a fine finish.
There was an energy to Chelsea's performance in the early stages that had been absent in recent weeks; perhaps the clear-the-air talks held between Tuchel and his players in the aftermath of the draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers had had the desired effect. And Mount was unfortunate not to add to second with a low effort that was blocked.
The red card – and fevered atmosphere – did fleetingly knock Chelsea out of their stride. But the Blues were able to regather their composure and Romelu Lukaku thought he had added a second only to be denied by the offside flag. The Belgian then glanced a header wide.
Chelsea still haven't seen Lukaku at his best. Yet at Elland Road, he was far more involved in the Blues' build-up and caused the home side's defence constant problems. Whether the performance was enough for the Belgian to keep his place in the side for the FA Cup final, particularly as Kai Havertz was rested, is another matter.
The second period was entirely controlled by Chelsea and eventually, the second goal came when Christian Pulisic whipped a shot into the bottom corner from 20 yards. Lukaku then found the net late on, his efforts and decision not to come off with 15 minutes to play rewarded.
"There was nothing new that we did today," Tuchel said after the game, "but we did our stuff with a much higher level of focus and discipline than in the last matches. I felt the team very calm and determined before the match and they delivered a performance that we got so used to over many weeks.
"We saw a big difference today and I'm happy. It was necessary – not only because of our situation – because it's good to arrive to a match like on Saturday with a calm mind. This was the foundation for that: this performance."