Chelsea negotiated their FIFA Club World Cup (CWC) semi-final by the finest of margins, beating Al-Hilal 1-0 courtesy of Romelu Lukaku’s point-blank strike, making it nine straight wins for European clubs against Asian teams in this competition’s semi-finals.
As the heavy pre-match favourites, Chelsea bore a great burden of duty ahead of their second-ever appearance in this tournament. The sole survivor from Chelsea’s lost CWC final nearly ten years ago, Cesar Azpilicueta, cut a determined figure in the early stages, and his 18th-minute ball from wide to Romelu Lukaku nearly found the back of the net, but the Belgian was unable to get a clean connection under pressure.
Much of Al-Hilal’s game plan was to marshal Lukaku effectively, but they permitted Chelsea to dominate possession in exchange. It proved a futile gesture in any case, and just 13 minutes later, Kai Havertz crossed for the Belgian from a dangerous position. Though he only found Yasser Al-Shahrani, the Saudi defender’s botched clearance fell to Lukaku, who had only to fire home from point-blank range to give Chelsea a lead they never looked like relinquishing.
A more determined Al-Hilal emerged after HT, and Mohamed Kanno shot over Kepa Arrizabalaga’s crossbar early in the second half, reminding Chelsea that the game was not yet over.
Moussa Marega came much closer just after the hour mark, the Malian striker drawing a fine save from Arrizabalaga after a through-ball was fed into his path. That sparked Al-Hilal into life, and Kanno smashed a long-range effort on goal to force Kepa into a fingertip save soon after, when an Odion Ighalo effort deflected his way.
As the final 15 minutes approached, Chelsea’s chances of making it five clean sheets for European clubs across seven CWC semi-finals against AFC-zone opponents looked increasingly tenuous.
Perhaps sensing more of an endgame than they expected, Chelsea began to shift gear, and a late shot from Mount on the break saw Kanno make a vital block, before the ‘Blues’ utilised their Premier League pedigree to hold on for victory.
Though there were several nervy moments for Chelsea in the second half, they will be natural favourites ahead of Saturday’s final against Palmeiras, though their defeat to Corinthians in the 2012 showpiece remains the only time since 2005 that a European team has failed to lift the trophy. That itself provides an additional degree of pressure for the champions of Europe.