His initial season as Chelsea’s No. 10 has not gone precisely as Christian Pulisic planned when he requested the most revered jersey in the sport late last summer. He has scored too few goals and endured too many injuries. The manager who believed in him was fired. The manager who replaced him had to be convinced.
And somehow it all has led here: to the biggest club soccer game in which any American man ever has played.
Pulisic and his Chelsea teammates will take their slight advantage over Real Madrid into a home game Wednesday at Stamford Bridge and attempt to traverse the 90 minutes between them and the UEFA Champions League final.
The first leg of their two-match series last week in Madrid finished in a 1-1 draw. The Chelsea goal, scored brilliantly by Pulisic during a first half that Chelsea dominated, presents an advantage because “away goal” totals represent the first tie-breaker in a Champions League series. Although the goals have been few this season, the club has had none bigger than Pulisic’s undressing of veteran Real goalkeeper Thibault Courtois in the 14th minute.
If the second game ends in a 0-0 tie, Chelsea will advance to play Manchester City in the final May 29 in Istanbul. And this is not the least bit inconceivable, because since a 5-2 defeat in its first game of April, Chelsea has allowed only four goals in eight matches.
“In a semifinal, in Champions League, it’s not about the formation, it’s not about what we play, what Real Madrid plays,” Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said in his pre-match news conference. “It’s about how we play it. Which intensity do we have, which belief do we have, are we brave enough, do we play courageous enough?
“For me it’s more, in these big games, it’s more about the little decisions, the individual tactical behavior, the tactical behavior within groups, within combinations.”
Tuchel took over as Chelsea manager on Jan. 26, after club legend Frank Lampard was fired. He had coached Pulisic in Germany, with Borussia Dortmund, but initially did not make significant use of the player with the iconic No. 10 jersey.
Over the past month, however, Pulisic has been Chelsea’s most dynamic offensive player. Not it’s most reliable; that would be young Mason Mount, who typically plays alongside Pulisic — in behind striker Timo Werner — in the attacking force at the front of Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 formation.
Pulisic’s ability to control the ball in tight spaces, to accelerate through and past defenders and to find teammates with essential passes has helped the team to reach the FA Cup final, to control a top-four spot in the Premier League in the race to qualify for the 2021-22 Champions League and brought the Blues to the precipice of their first Champions League final since 2012.
Pulisic does not play in the traditional “No. 10” position for Chelsea. A lot of teams no longer have such a role in their formation: a player stationed in the center of the field through which the majority of the offense flows. He has that sort of creative ability, though, as was apparent when he provided the pinpoint pass forward to left back Ben Chilwell that led to the cross that led to Werner’s first-half goal against Premier League rival West Ham in a 1-0 victory April 24.
The opportunity to wear No. 10 for Chelsea became available when Brazil’s Willian left the club after last season.
“I spoke with the club, and everyone felt like I was ready for it. And I felt I was ready,” Pulisic told CBS Sports last fall. He said he understood the history behind the jersey; Pele wore No. 10, and Maradona. And Zinedine Zidane, who will manage Real Madrid in Wednesday’s decisive game.
“Absolutely it’s a good thing, this decision to take this number,” Tuchel said. “It sets the tone. And it shows the determination and the dreams that Christian wants to fulfill, and his own demands to himself.
“The downside of this decision is that people always will compare you with any No. 10 in the world, and with the No. 10s at a big club like Chelsea. So this is the downside, and you have to live up to it. Right now, he’s in a good place, and he has a huge impact to our team. So everything is good, and we’re happy if he continues (in the second leg) to make his mark.”
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