Romelu Lukaku strike against Al Hilal earns weary Chelsea Fifa Club World Cup final spot

European champions triumph 1-0 in Abu Dhabi and progress to Saturday's showpiece against Palmeiras

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As expected, Chelsea are Fifa Club World Cup finalists, the tournament front-runners overcoming the crowd favourites in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday night.

A goal from Romelu Lukaku did it, proving enough to outdo Al Hilal as the European champions outlasted their Asian counterparts in front of almost 20,000 at the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium.

Just like their only other Club World Cup appearance, in 2012, Chelsea will contest the showpiece billed as a battle to determine the best club team on the planet. Back then, the Premier League outfit were beaten by Brazil’s Corinthians. On Saturday, they will face another Sao Paulo side in Palmeiras.

Most probably, they will need to improve on their semi-final performance. Chelsea, without manager Thomas Tuchel in the capital, always just about deserved it, yet Hilal made their loftier opponents work. For their part, the Saudi Arabians left with more than heads held high: they have a third-place match to tackle, against Egypt's Al Ahly on Saturday.

Chelsea's win on Wednesday was sealed not long after the half-hour. Kai Havertz was fortunate to get the better of right-back Mohammed Al Breik on the Hilal byline, and cut back a cross towards Lukaku. While the ball lifted beyond the Belgian, a mix-up in the Saudis' defence allowed the ball to drop invitingly to Lukaku, who side-footed past Abdullah Al Mayouf in the Hilal goal.

The strike snapped a five-match drought for the summer signing. In the process, it took his tally since rejoining Chelsea from Inter Milan to nine. How he required a boost.

By that stage, his side were well in the ascendancy. Although Hilal burst from the blocks — recent signing Odion Ighalo scuff wide his first-minute shot — Chelsea settled into their rhythm soon after.

On 10 minutes, Hakim Ziyech fired over following fine work from Cesar Azpilicueta on the right flank. Then Lukaku failed to connect with his captain’s low centre, when any touch would have likely opened sooner the scoring. Moments before he did break the deadlock, Lukaku swivelled inside the Hilal penalty area, but sent his effort straight at Mayouf.

To be fair, at times Hilal displayed a swagger in attack. Nine minutes before half-time, Salem Al Dawsari broke down the right and cut inside. However, his shot sailed well off target.

Still, it was Chelsea who finished the half stronger. Lukaku laid off a pass to Ziyech, who could not find a way past the excellent Mohammed Kanno. From a corner shortly afterwards, Marcos Alonso met a clearance with a fierce half volley that flew inches over the Hilal goal.

Chelsea started the second half in similar vein. Havertz raced from South Korean centre-back Hyun-soo Jang and, as he fast approached Mayouf and the angle tightened, the German scooped a deft chip on to the upright. Hilal, and their vociferous support, braced themselves for barrage.

It did not help that Chelsea’s midfield had been provided extra ballast, with N’Golo Kante replacing Jorginho at half-time. A reigning world champion for the linchpin to last summer’s European Championship winners: it spelt out Hilal's task at hand.

It did not take long for Kante to make an impression. On the hour, he chipped a cross into Lukaku, who nodded back down to Ziyech on the end of the Saudis' area. The Moroccan’s half volley forced an acrobatic save from Mayouf at full stretch.

Two minutes later, Hilal carved their clearest opening. Matheus Pereira slipped in Moussa Marega, but the Senegalese winger was confronted sharply by Kepa Arrizabalaga and the ball was diverted for a corner. Almost in a flash, Kepa then flung himself to his left to brilliantly palm away Kanno’s curled effort.

Edouard Mendy, given a watching brief on the bench after Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations success with Senegal, would no doubt have approved.

Suddenly, Hilal were in the contest. Pereira fired wide, then Jang headed the former’s corner just wide. Yet, despite their apparent weariness, Chelsea did what they were expected to do. They saw out the match.

Updated: February 09, 2022, 8:44 PM
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