Chelsea must eventually become about more than just Cole Palmer and injuries. Middlesbrough painted both problems in an ugly light on Tuesday when Hayden Hackney gave the Championship team a 1-0 lead in their Carabao Cup semifinal match. The second leg of the match will take place at Stamford Bridge in two weeks.
The furious scenes at half time imply manager Mauricio Pochettino needs to start making the Blues more than the sum of their expensively manufactured parts sooner rather than later. Chelsea’s best may yet be enough to break the tie and secure a spot in the February final at Wembley.
After a performance that can be added to an increasing number of losses that are mirror images of one another—creating opportunities, failing to take them, and giving up a soft goal—a few Chelsea supporters who had traveled to Riverside Stadium expressed their displeasure at the final whistle. Several players went to thank the supporters.
According to sources who spoke with ESPN, the club’s management has a great deal of empathy for Pochettino since injuries have prevented him from starting his strongest players on a regular basis. Given the fitness issues that have marred their campaign, it is not hyperbole to suggest that he may never have even trained with his ideal lineup.
However, Middlesbrough had 12 players injured and lost two more in the first 20 minutes when both Alex Bangura and Emmanuel Latte Lath hobbled off, while Chelsea had 11 players out due to injury.
Nevertheless, Michael Carrick’s team had a strategy, followed it, and won. The only two efforts on goal Middlesbrough managed all evening came from Hackney’s 37th-minute strike. However, they operated comfortably for the whole of the second half as Chelsea once again found it difficult to penetrate a squad that was defending deeply and resolutely.
Palmer is typically the one who makes the difference. Prior to this encounter, Chelsea had won three straight games; in the second, Palmer showed off his potential by scoring two goals and providing an assist as the Blues defeated Luton. This is why you shouldn’t rely only on 21-year-olds with little expertise at the highest level to accomplish your goals—he may have ended up with a similar haul here. Palmer was one of those people who inevitably falls short of their prime on sometimes.
Palmer had a great opportunity to give Chelsea the lead in the 31st minute, but Middlesbrough goalkeeper Tom Glover denied his early sighter. Palmer was able to intercept a square ball from Jonathan Howson by stretching, and this gave him the opportunity to choose his place on the box’s edge. His shot slid wide.
After Glover had failed to stop a meek shot by Enzo Fernández, Hackney punished Chelsea at the opposite end. Palmer then squandered an even better opportunity in first-half stoppage time, turning a rebound over from four yards. There remained before the half for another attempt by Palmer, but a feeble attempt failed to find a way past Glover.
Chelsea had 81% of the possession in the second half, but they only managed two more shots on goal in the whole 90 minutes. Middlesbrough was left to celebrate their victory, which gives them every reason to stick to their game plan in west London, which the Blues have consistently struggled with.