The Coupe de France, Coupe de La Ligue, Champions League, FA Cup, Champions League again and now the League Cup. As far as knockout specialists go, Thomas Tuchel is in a Rocky Marciano run of form.
Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday night confirmed a 3-0 aggregate score and Tuchel’s sixth straight final. Not all have resulted in glory: that first Champions League final with Paris Saint-Germain was lost to Bayern Munich; the FA Cup run ending in defeat to Leicester City. But a third piece of silverware in nine months at Stamford Bridge awaits on 22 February. Whoever of Liverpool or Arsenal stand in their way, Tuchel will no doubt be well-prepped for what could be his 10th trophy as a senior manager.
Tuchel has not ticked over a full year as Chelsea manager but is already the first to take them to finals in the European Cup, FA Cup and League Cup. Even with the mitigation of the luck of the draw – their first Premier League opposition in 2020/21’s FA Cup was Sheffield United in the last eight who finished bottom of that season’s Premier League; they haven’t had to leave London in this League Cup run – it speaks of the German’s quality. A tactical acumen capable of taming one-off matches against an array of opposition.
This may only be the League Cup, but you only need to look at the last eight winners to know it is a competition that has become reflective of elite depth. Manchester City won in all but two of those years. Manchester United triumphed in 2017, and Chelsea before them in 2015 – a success alongside the Premier League that season.
That dual success was achieved by Jose Mourinho, who used the competition in 2005 as an apéritif for his first league success. The occasion, the Wembley pageantry, the feel of lifting a trophy into the sky all part of making winning habitual. Pep Guardiola adopted this mantra, taking it seriously enough to win four in a row.
This time, however, it will have a distinctly different feel. Defeat to West Ham on penalties in October guaranteed a first City-less final in five years. But as they sit on a 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League, a three-way title race already ending no sooner had it begun, one imagines it is a blip they have already forgotten about. As such, the first showpiece final of 2021/22 could feel like a consolation scrap if Liverpool make it through their semi-final.
Tuchel won’t care about that too much, certainly not yet. Both Chelsea and Manchester City still have 17 league games to come, the next on Saturday at the Etihad against each other. City are 11 wins on the bounce to Chelsea’s one in their last five, but the visitors must make a dent on this unstoppable light blue machine, even if it only delays the inevitable.
Perhaps it is too cute a thought to think Tuchel can approach this with his cup hat on. That being said, this is as close to a now-or-never fixture you can get at this stage in a league season. Certainly, the stakes are just as high for a team who had ambitions for a sixth title, especially considering they headed the table into December.
It is a slip that will still prey on Tuchel’s mind come the summer. They are still on course for a cup treble, with favourable fixtures in the fourth round of the FA Cup (Plymouth Argyle) and the Champions League (Lille). But the 48-year-old has had an unsettling relationship with league titles.
Two darts at the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund saw him finish 10 points (second) and 18 points (third) behind Bayern Munich. When he broke his duck by winning Ligue 1 in 2018/19 and 2019/20, PSG’s unimpeachable dominance and overinflated ego diminished the accomplishment and downplayed their importance.
While Chelsea are no traditional underdog, they represent both the best chance and most rewarding shot at a title he and the club would savour. And it was instructive that he signed off Wednesday’s press conference by stating that silverware should form part of a wider focus and not be taken for granted.
“I come from a club where it was very important to win trophies, defined itself on trophies,” he said of his time in Paris. “It’s good that we are not shy to say it: we want to be in finals and win finals. This is the ambition.
“But I don’t think we can demand or expect to win titles. We should not be arrogant, we should respect every competition. We play for an ambitious club and it is a gift. The club mentality sharpens the attitude of the players and this is nothing you can invent, it’s a long process.”
It felt like a call to attention, one he no doubt reiterates behind the scenes and which will fill supporters with even more encouragement. There is still plenty of road to travel for Chelsea to re-establish their dominance in English football, but it will continue to be lined with gold.