Chelsea made hard work of reaching the Club World Cup final with a 1-0 win against Al Hilal in the last four on Wednesday.
Thomas Tuchel’s side – playing without their coach following his positive coronavirus test – were in control from the outset and should never have been in danger of becoming the first European champions to fall short of the final since Manchester United in 2000.
But slack play in the final third, when both shooting and playing the final pass, meant Romelu Lukaku’s first-half strike was their only goal and Kepa Arrizabalaga had to step up at the other end.
Asian champions Al Hilal, who had scored six against Al Jazira in the previous round, remained in the game until the final whistle but could not find the leveller to prevent Chelsea advancing to face Palmeiras in Saturday’s decider.
Setting the tone for much of the contest, Lukaku had initially been frustrated in his pursuit of a first goal in more than a month, repeatedly taking up promising positions without finding the finishing touch.
But Chelsea’s record signing could not miss on 32 minutes when Kai Havertz’s cross bounced kindly off unwitting defender Yasser Al-Shahrani into the six-yard box, allowing the forward to slam into the net right-footed.
Havertz came close to scoring himself at the start of the second half as he followed a brilliant run down the left by beating Abdullah Al-Mayoof from a tight angle, only for the ball to bounce back out off the near post.
With Al Hilal still just one behind, Kepa was twice required to come to Chelsea’s rescue, advancing from his line to block from Moussa Marega and then pulling off a sublime stop from Mohamed Kanno.
An extended spell of pressure followed, but Chelsea held on to give themselves a second shot at a first Club World Cup title after 2012’s final failure.
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Wasteful Chelsea underperformed their expected goals total of 1.60, but that figure also does not take into account the numerous occasions when the final ball was not quite right or Lukaku mistimed his run.
Such profligacy allowed Al Hilal to grow into the game and rack up 12 shots worth a combined 0.95 xG themselves – albeit while similarly failing to convert.
Palmeiras, Chelsea’s final opponents, may not be quite so forgiving, and Blues supporters have painful memories of coming up short against Brazilian opponents after Corinthians were crowned world champions 10 years ago.
Keeper Kepa keeps delivering
Edouard Mendy enjoyed a warm welcome as he linked up with the Chelsea squad having won the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal, but the goalkeeper has scarcely been missed – particularly in the past two matches.
Kepa counted an 118th-minute penalty among four saves in a nervy FA Cup win over Plymouth Argyle on Saturday and had to be at his best again against Al Hilal. There were three stops this time, with his save from Kanno the game’s standout moment.
Still Luk-ing for best form
Lukaku would have been relieved to get on the scoresheet having not netted since a 5-1 win against Chesterfield on January 8.
Yet there were few signs of a scoring return triggering an improvement in performance levels here. Besides his goal, Lukaku had only one shot – straight at the goalkeeper – while he was caught offside on three occasions.
Chelsea play Palmeiras on Saturday for the title after Al Hilal are in action in a third-place play-off against Al Ahly.