Kai Havertz’s disjointed and illness-affected start to the season looked a distant memory as the German found his feet in time for a Champions League final, writes Phil McNulty.
Havertz arrived at Chelsea last summer from Bayer Leverkusen, in a club record deal that could be worth around £71m, amid the sort of fanfare befitting one of the most coveted young forwards in Europe.
The 21-year-old’s languid style meant that for much of his time under Frank Lampard – the man in charge when he was signed – he looked ill-at-ease, off the pace and marginalised.
And Havertz’s hopes of making an instant impact were further hampered when he contracted Covid-19 in November, recounting later that he spent “seven to 10 days just in my bed and everything was hurting”.
Those early months looked a distant memory on Wednesday. Against Real Madrid, Havertz demonstrated what all the fuss was about with a majestic combination of poise, elegance and power, as Chelsea completed a thoroughly deserved win over ageing opponents to confirm an all-Premier League Champions League final with Manchester City in Istanbul on 29 May.
Yes, Havertz could have been more clinical but class oozed from every pore and a couple of physical challenges showed he has all the assets to be the complete package. One in particular sent a message loud and clear.
As a long ball was played out of defence in the second half, Havertz found himself in direct competition for possession with one of the game’s most intimidating sights, the ruthless old warrior himself Sergio Ramos.
Ramos, with four Champions League winner’s medals among his many honours for club and country, has made his career winning this sort of duel, his reputation often intimidating opponents.
It was almost symbolic that Havertz startled Ramos by knocking him aside to take possession.
The exchange drew shouts of delight from Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel, who has helped Havertz show his real self at Stamford Bridge since he replaced the sacked Lampard in January, and roars from the home contingent on the touchline.
Havertz also showed finesse to go alongside his fire when he took a ball from Jorginho in Real Madrid territory and with sleight of foot and superb vision, not only noticed compatriot Toni Kroos out of the corner of his eye but proceeded to demonstrate glorious awareness to caress the ball between his bamboozled opponent’s legs to start another attack.
In the analysis of this game, marks must be taken off for Havertz’s failure to score but even then those contributions showed his growing confidence and danger.
There is a nonchalance about Havertz that might be taken by detractors for lack of interest but it is a sign of natural gifts that are now showing themselves.
He showed audacity and confidence, a little too much perhaps, to try a chip when he received N’Golo Kante’s pass in the 28th minute but his effort bounced off the bar for Timo Werner to open the scoring so all’s well that ends well.
There was some surprise that Christian Pulisic was left on the bench but Tuchel clearly recognises that Havertz is running hot after his two goals against Fulham on Saturday. He could have had more here, sending a towering header on to the bar and drawing a fine save from Real keeper Thibaut Courtois.
Whereas Havertz’s early body language betrayed struggle, there is an urgency to his stride now as he showed on many occasions here. And for such a tall man he moves very smoothly when he goes through the gears.
He has a delicate touch with both feet, hangs in the air well as he uses his height and there is a sense there will be plenty of goals to come. Like his running style, Havertz is a smooth operator when everything is in synch.
Havertz was a potent link between midfield and attack, knitting many moves together with Kante, keeping Ramos occupied as he and the rest of this proud but fading Real Madrid side looked its age when faced with Chelsea’s youth and energy.
Even the biggest signings need time to adjust to new surroundings, especially when they are young and accompanied by such a lavish price tag, but Havertz is starting to play like he feels at home and this is the sort of breakthrough performance that will only draw more from him.
Lampard – and what emotions must he have felt as he saw the side he helped build add a Champions League final appearance to an FA Cup final date with Leicester? – never wavered in his faith in Havertz, but the arrival of Tuchel seems to have come at the perfect time for the player.
There will be bumps along the road but Havertz now has the biggest European club stage to show what he is all about in Istanbul before taking his place in the Germany team at the Euros.
He will have a major part to play in what may yet prove to be a glorious repeat of the 2012 season when the FA Cup and Champions League came to Stamford Bridge.
If Havertz’s Chelsea career had a stuttering start, the engine is now purring.