The most important thing is that Chelsea are one game away from winning the lot. This was an uneven performance from the European champions and although they did enough to stop Al-Hilal from pulling off a shock, there will have to be an improvement when they face Palmeiras in the Club World Cup final on Saturday.
This was heavy going at times. Thomas Tuchel, who was forced to watch from home after testing positive for Covid-19 last week, will not be fooled. The German saw Romelu Lukaku settle a tight game, but Chelsea still have problems with their record signing. The unfortunate reality is that Lukaku’s only goals since giving that interview have come against Chesterfield and Al-Hilal, who put up a good fight throughout this semi-final, and the worry for Tuchel will be that his side remain unconvincing in attack.
That lack of ruthlessness is an issue for Chelsea. It almost cost them here. Al-Hilal kept fighting and Chelsea were indebted to Kepa Arrizabalaga, who made two stunning saves to deny Odion Ighalo and Mohamed Kanno in the second half.
Chelsea knew that they could not afford to be complacent, especially as there was no Tuchel on the touchline to keep them on their toes. Al-Hilal were impressive in the previous round, thrashing Al Jazira 6-1, and the Saudi champions were not short of threats in the final third. Ighalo was a familiar face up front, even if the former Manchester United and Watford striker is not exactly the sprightliest of movers these days, and there were times when Al-Hilal looked dangerous, Moussa Marega’s physicality causing problems on the right and the former West Brom forward Matheus Pereira a nimble presence between the lines.
This was not straightforward Chelsea, who were led by Tuchel’s assistants, Arno Michels and Zsolt Low. The Mohammed bin Zayed was a boisterous place at kick-off, the noisy contingent of Al-Hilal fans urging their side to upset the odds, and there was an understandably rustiness to Chelsea at first. There was less than a minute on the clock when slack play from Mateo Kovacic gifted Ighalo a shooting opportunity and it soon became clear how much this tournament means to teams outside Europe, Ali Al-Bulayhi typifying Al-Hilal’s commitment when he stretched every sinew in his body to hook the ball away from Lukaku just when the striker looked certain to burst through on goal in the 11th minute.
By that point, though, Chelsea were already in control. Their defence had pushed up and Hakim Ziyech was an inventive presence on the right, his ability to find space giving Al Hilal constant problems.
Chelsea, who reverted to a 3-4-2-1 system after using a back four when they knocked Plymouth Argyle out of the FA Cup last Saturday, soon began to create chances. Ziyech sent a fizzing drive inches over and Lukaku was guilty of a poor miss from a César Azpilicueta cross, flicking wide when he should have scored.
At that stage it felt like it was going to be another trying experience for Lukaku, who often looked like a spare part in Chelsea’s attack. His movement was cumbersome, he strayed into offside positions on too many occasions and there was no hiding his lack of confidence when he wasted a chance to release Kai Havertz midway through the opening period.
In that context it was difficult to know what to think when Lukaku put Chelsea ahead in the 32nd minute. Kovacic started the move, driving forward from deep, but Al-Hilal only had themselves to blame for failing to deal with Havertz’s cross. Yasir al-Shahrani got himself into a horrible muddle at the far post and when the left-back’s messy clearance bounced off Al-Bulayhi, Abdullah al-Maiouf had no chance of stopping Lukaku from beating him from close range.
Yet does a scrappy goal against limited opposition mean that Lukaku’s woes are over? There was certainly little sign of any spark in the second half. Lukaku was barely involved after the interval and rarely appeared to be on the same wavelength as Havertz and Ziyech, who went close to extending Chelsea’s lead with a swerving drive that brought the best out of Al-Maiouf.
Havertz also threatened, hitting the post after bursting through down the left, but Chelsea faded as the game wore on. The underdogs kept fighting and it took two wonderful saves from Arrizabalaga to preserve their advantage, Ighalo and Kanno thwarted by Chelsea’s goalkeeper.
By the end, Chelsea were grateful to make it through. On this evidence they need Tuchel to join them in Abu Dhabi. They need his urgency.