Chelsea secured their place in the Champions League knockout stages with a game to spare thanks to an impressive win at Red Bull Salzburg.
Stunning strikes in each half from Mateo Kovacic and Kai Havertz in each half earned Chelsea the three points which sent them through and condemned Salzburg to a rare home defeat. The potential reward was a big one for Chelsea but it was matched by the size of their task.
Chelsea kicked off knowing they could not only qualify from Group E with a victory but secure top spot on the night too if the result in the later Group E game between Dinamo Zagreb and AC Milan also went their way.
The slight problem was Salzburg do not really do defeats on their own territory. Or at least they didn’t. They were on a 40-game unbeaten run at the Red Bull Arena, a sequence dating back to their previous home defeat in February 2021.
Intensity was the order of the day for Chelsea to try and unsettle the Austrian champions and they answered their manager’s call early on.
Havertz, recalled as one of four changes, chased a lost cause after Potter’s former Brighton defender Bernardo failed to get enough on his attempted back header, and the German almost beat Salzburg’s keeper Philipp Kohn to the ball.
Conor Gallagher then hassled and harried on the edge of the hosts’ box and slipped through Aubameyang but his touch let him down.
Salzburg responded with a couple of corners that came to nothing and a Luka Sucic effort that comfortably cleared Kepa Arrizabalaga’s bar but Chelsea were the dominant side and were duly rewarded midway through the half.
Christian Pulisic and Havertz scrapped to keep a Chelsea attack alive, Maximilian Wober might have thought he had dealt with the danger when he got a foot in, but the ball ran to Kovacic, who swung his left foot at it and found the top corner.
It was the Croatian’s first goal since his wonder strike against Liverpool in January – not as spectacular but, ultimately, just as well-placed.
To much bemusement, Kovacic left the Stamford Bridge pitch in just his underwear following Saturday’s draw against Manchester United. He would have been forgiven for shedding his shirt in celebration after his strike but marked it, instead, in muted fashion.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang forced Kohn into a diving scooping save with a deflected header and then it really should have been 2-0 just after the half hour following a brilliant Chelsea move that would have been one of the team goals of the season had they finished it off.
They kept the ball patiently at the back before springing into life. With Chelsea’s keep-ball tempting Salzburg over to their left, Kovacic spotted Havertz all alone on the other side and sent him away.
That created a two versus one for Chelsea, Havertz timed his pass to Aubameyang perfectly but Kohn was out just in time to deny the striker with an outstretched leg.
Chelsea spurned another chance when Havertz climbed high but could only head straight at Kohn, leaving him frustrated and Potter with his head in his hands, while Aubameyang was denied by Kohn again just before the break.
Noah Okafor and Maurits Kjaergaard fired a couple of warning shots but Chelsea were comfortably on top and Salzburg’s display did not tally with a side that had been such a force at home for so long.
Then the second half started. They came out a different side and almost instantly had a penalty shout waved away after they appealed for a handball against Kovacic.
Salzburg coach Matthias Jaissle brought on exciting striker Benjamin Sesko, whose arrival whipped up the atmosphere further until Havertz briefly silenced the crowd.