Thomas Tuchel had just steered Chelsea into the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2014 when he was asked who he wanted to face in the last four. The German said he preferred to take on teams from another country. He got his wish when Real Madrid eliminated Liverpool.
And yet a still more seismic all-English clash could beckon on the European stage. Saturday's FA Cup semi-final could be a dress rehearsal for the Champions League final. To some, Chelsea against Manchester City in the showpiece occasion would be the triumph of the nouveaux riches, to others a triumph of coaching.
City have 28 wins in 30, Chelsea only two defeats in 17 under Tuchel and the most recent of them, in Seville on Tuesday, felt a technicality: Mehdi Teremi’s spectacular injury-time overhead kick came too late to give Porto any hope of progress and to all intents and purposes the game was a stalemate.
The Tuchel renaissance has been remarkable. It may have come with an unwitting assist from Pep Guardiola. An injury-time goal also distorted the scoreline when these two clubs last met. It finished Chelsea 1 Manchester City 3 at Stamford Bridge in January but the visitors’ superiority was far greater than that.
They were 3-0 up in 34 minutes, with Chelsea utterly bemused by Guardiola’s use of Kevin de Bruyne as a false nine. It felt an indictment of Frank Lampard. It was hard to escape the sense that he was outclassed by Guardiola.
Chelsea had actually kicked off above City, who were depleted by coronavirus cases, but the Londoners’ fourth defeat in six games assumed a greater significance. Lampard did not recover.
Tuchel looks an upgrade; his extraordinary early impact means he has reached a second successive Champions League semi-final with different clubs. He could yet do the Roberto Di Matteo double: in 2012, another mid-season appointment won Chelsea both the FA Cup and the Champions League, though Tuchel will surely have more staying power than their greatest caretaker.
Chelsea 0 Porto 1: player ratings
He renews a rivalry from Guardiola. Lampard may note that he actually has more victories against the Catalan, courtesy of the game that rendered Liverpool champions last summer.
Tuchel faced Guardiola twice with Mainz, losing by an aggregate score of 6-1, and three times with Borussia Dortmund, going down 5-1 in his first Der Klassiker and losing a German Cup final on penalties.
Yet Tuchel counts Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone, Carlo Ancelotti and Jurgen Klopp among his victims from his brief time in charge of Chelsea. He qualifies as a big-game manager. Despite his fine record in their previous meetings, Guardiola may look back at the past with some trepidation.
Rewind four years and Antonio Conte became the first manager to record home-and-away league wins over the Catalan in the same season.
Tuchel has borrowed heavily from a predecessor, reinstating his back three, reviving Cesar Azpilicueta’s career on the right of it and restoring the rejuvenated Antonio Rudiger on the left.
N’Golo Kante, an old scourge of City, is at his best as a “double six,” in Tuchel’s terminology. Chelsea’s previously porous defence has been afforded more protection, both by personnel and a system.
Take out the aberration of their 5-2 defeat to West Bromwich Albion and they have conceded three goals in 16 games; of those, one was an own goal, another spectacular. In contrast, City got three in 16 minutes in their last meeting.
Much like their 6-0 thrashing of Mauricio Sarri’s Chelsea, it reverberated because of who the losers were. Now Chelsea are transformed. Tuchel and Guardiola could be a defining battle in the FA Cup and the Champions League; perhaps in next season’s Premier League, too.