LONDON — It was of course, only one or two flags, only one fan who felt compelled to show his backing for Saudi Arabia ahead of kick off in this clash between sportswashers past and present. The reasons why anyone would feel compelled to support the regime, not the team, are of course unknowable but it felt particularly telling as Newcastle United fans decamped to Chelsea.
For some of those clad in black and white this was a day of schaudenfreude regardless of the result, a 1-0 win for Chelsea earned as Kai Havertz delivered the game’s one moment of brilliance after 88 drab minutes. With Roman Abramovich now sanctioned by the British government and the Blues desperately searching for a new owner, there is one less moneybags club to compete for Europe’s priciest players. Newcastle supporters feel like they are the coming force in English football.
“Chelsea’s skint and the Mags are rich,” echoed along the Fulham Road prior to kick off. The nature of a league in which ownership of a club is seen as offering legitimacy to billionaires and nation state’s investment funds can often be hard for supporters to square. Doubtless there were many Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge on Sunday who supported this team before Abramovich came along in 2003 and who will continue to do so after the club has disentangled itself from the current situation.
At some stage Newcastle supporters may have to address the geopolitical realities that come with being owned by the Saudi Investment Fund. Instead today there were some reveling at their association with this particular nation state, who yesterday announced it had executed 81 people, accused of terrorism. The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights described it as “a continuation of the bloodshed that characterized this era, far from official attempts to whitewash the image of the government”.
Across the Stamford Bridge pitch from those few Saudi flags, on the corner of the Matthew Harding and East stands, there still hung the banner celebrating “The Roman Empire.” Chelsea had undergone a spree of deAbramovichification in the space of a few hours. His name was almost entirely scrubbed from the match program, one brief note on page 68 acknowledging that the club were now operating under license of the British government following the sanctions imposed on their owner.
Abramovich, the United Kingdom had concluded, had “clear links” with Vladimir Putin, under whose leadership Russia is engaged in a war of aggression on Ukraine comparable with the 18th century expansion of the country under Catherine the Great or the bloodshed of the civil war, which ended with both states tied together in the Soviet Union.
There are, it should be noted, moments that you can set against this, not least Ukraine flags in both the West Stand and among the away supporters. But it says something when the glorification of wealth is coming from the traveling supporters as the advertising hoardings bare the hashtag Stand With Ukraine. “Geordie boys are on a bender, Abramovich is a war offender,” came the cry from a vocal proportion of the Shed End. “No noise from the bankrupt boys” had been the earlier cry; for a moment a smattering of voices across the ground cried out for “Roman Abramovich” but it didn’t last long.
Perhaps Thomas Tuchel’s words had got through after he encouraged supporters not to confuse solidarity with Ukraine for gestures against their soon-to-be ex-owner. Doubtless there are those disinclined to cheer Abramovich when he is the cause of this current crisis. Certainly there was an air of tension that permeated the home support in west London.
Rambling inside Stamford Bridge’s beefed up security cordon an hour-and-a-half before kick off you would have done well to guess there was soon to be a major Premier League fixture, perhaps the last in front of a full crowd this season. Few had made their way toward the ground. What was the point? Parents could be heard telling young children the club shop was closed, the familiar din of those congregating around program sellers nowhere to be heard.
The logos of sponsors Three, Hyundai and Zapp were still on display on the kits and around the ground though all three are pushing for these very visible links between their firms and Abramovich to be swiftly removed. Stamford Bridge already felt different Sunday, it is unlikely to veer towards normality over the coming weeks.
Chelsea remain in dialogue with the government over the terms of the license under which they operate. There are doubts as to whether they can meet the costs that come with running a Premier League club, from away game travel to staff wages, whilst a new license would be required for the club to be sold.
Tuchel articulated the feeling of those who no longer have any real agency over the future of this club. Asked whether he had been offered any assurances over his job, the Champions League winner said: “No assurances, and I think anybody who gives an assurance should not be trusted because no one knows — this is my opinion — what’s coming.
“One week ago, the statement was clear: the club is not for sale. One week later, it is, obviously, so if anybody tells me today, ‘This is what’s going to happen’, I will not trust them 100 percent because we need to be flexible and things turn out to be crazy enough to be upside-down one day later.”
Against this backdrop there was precious little the game could offer in mitigation. Even N’Golo Kante’s drives through midfield were not as exhilarating as they might usually be. For the most part Chelsea stalled out in the final third against a Newcastle defense that could pack the box with height, when Kai Havertz and Mason Mount worked to release Timo Werner, who flashed a shot wide of the far post.
Newcastle’s threat was largely confined to set pieces and crosses, Miguel Almiron putting a delivery right on Dan Burn’s head for the center back to flick wide before the Paraguayan’s volley was well saved by Edouard Mendy just before the interval. Perhaps their greatest frustration was that referee David Coote felt that Trevoh Chalobah grasping Jacob Murphy’s jersey in the second half was not worthy of a penalty.
Though the visitors did not really test from open play they did do plenty to quell Chelsea’s attack. By fair means and on occasion foul, Burn managed to smother Havertz for most of this game, though VAR was on the German’s side when it did not suggest Coote give him more than a yellow for an elbow into Burn’s face.
Meanwhile Werner was back in the form that has all too often defined his Chelsea career, heavy touches when through on goal. That is assuming he wasn’t offside; in the 62nd minute he managed to bait Martin Dubravka into a foul but only after misjudging his dart in behind the defense.
Chelsea seemed out of ideas, substitute Romelu Lukaku once more shunted into that target man role that is such an uncomfortable fit for him. He struggled with poor long balls. Havertz did not. Jorginho found a chink of space between Dubravka and his back line, clipping a pass over the top that still asked plenty of his tea mate, who had all the quality needed.
His first touch killed any momentum on the spinning ball. With inches of space in which to operate, a shrug of the outside of his boot took the ball beyond Dubravka. Stamford Bridge’s eruption carried no little relief to go with the jubilance. Havertz’s goal was a reminder that for all the doubts that lie ahead for this team things may not be that hard whilst they can call on such quality.