USMNT stars Christian Pulisic and Timothy Weah will face off in a high-stakes contest on Tuesday night when Chelsea host Lille in the first leg of their two-game Champions League knockout tie.
Here at Yanks Abroad, we occasionally find a few minutes between writing articles to watch a game or two, so we’ve decided to highlight the occasional YA-relevant game that we are excited about watching; whether it’s some steamy Yank-on-Yank action, a top-billed battle between two powerhouses, a heated derby, or a David vs. Goliath battle that catches our fancy.
This week we look at a game that checks at least a couple of these boxes, the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 knockout tie between Christian Pulisic’s Chelsea and Tim Weah’s Lille OSC.
On paper, the hosts, Chelsea, are undoubtedly the favorites to come away victors on Tuesday evening, and are heavily favored to be the team to advance to the final eight following the second leg on March 16. Nevertheless, shock results happen, Chelsea has been unpredictable this season (even if they have already won one trophy) and Lille has one of Europe’s most potent game-changers on their roster.
Both Chelsea and Lille have blown hot and cold this season, have lacked consistency, and have been a general disappointment to fans in their domestic competitions. Chelsea once had hopes of competing for the Premier League title, but stand zero chance now of catching Manchester City. Lille are mired in mid-table mediocrity in France, and likely will miss European competition next season all-together.
Yet, both have advanced to the final 16 of the Champions League in convincing fashion.
Lille won their group, which one could argue was one of the competition’s weakest with Salzburg, Sevilla and Wolfsburg the other three. Nevertheless, they looked like a quality European side that well belongs in the knockout round. If only they could have done that in Ligue 1.
Chelsea finished second in what was effectively a two-team group with Juventus plus two other teams that never had any chance (Zenit and Malmö). They beat the eventual group winners Juventus 4-0 in the penultimate game, and would have finished first were it not for a strange defensive lapse in the finale against the Russians. Nevertheless, it’s a similar case as with Lille, where they have been more impressive in European rather than domestic play.
And then, there is the issue of the two USMNT starters – Christin Pulisic and Timothy Weah – who find themselves on opposite sides of the ball.
Let’s be honest: there is no guarantee that either of them, much less both, will start on Tuesday night. No doubt, both Pulisic and Weah are important pieces for their teams, do start on a regular basis, and play much more than they don’t when healthy.
That last phrase – when healthy – is the key. Both players have missed significant time in the current season (and prior), which has somewhat hampered their ability to reach their full potential.
Pulisic has returned admirably from his long injury absence in 2021, and has shown flashes of the talent and danger that made Chelsea break the bank on him in 2019. He played the full 90 minutes in their narrower-than-necessary win over Crystal Palace over the weekend, so a rotation to the bench, from which he has done well as an impact substitute, could be in the cards.
Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel is, however, unpredictable, and whatever the team was doing in their game Saturday (where Pulisic was deployed as a left-sided midfielder) wasn’t working. Therefore, a return to the front-three alongside Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech would not be a total surprise.
Weah put in an unexpectedly long substitute shift last weekend after right-sided midfielder Angel Gomes went down injured, playing from the 27th minute onwards in their scoreless draw against Metz. The American only played 11 minutes in their previous game, meaning that he will be a well-rested option for Jocelyn Gourvennec, and faces even odds to be deployed on the wing behind front-two.
The two teams have faced off – fairly recently – in European competition. Specifically, they were both drawn into Group H in the 2019-20 edition of the Champions League, playing twice. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea won both of those games by a 2-1 margin, which were actually two of Lille’s more respectable results in group play, where they finished last-place with a single point earned.
Skip forward to the current matchup, and it’s hard expect that the two games will go much better for Les Dogues…except…well…they have a Canadian named Jonathan David on their side.
By far one of the hottest attacking commodities in Europe right now, the 22 year-old New York-born Canadian international is the sort of player who can turn a game on its head if he finds himself in the right mood.
He’s scored 12 so far in Ligue 1, netted one in each of Lille’s final three group-stage games, and is exactly the sort of player Chelsea would be dropping a load of cash to acquire in the summer had they not already blown their wad on Romelu Lukaku last year.
Will the Canadian, who is in the midst of an uncharacteristically long scoring drought stretching back to late-December, be enough to turn the tide against a vastly more expensive, deeper, and generally higher quality Blues side?
In all honesty, probably not.
Chelsea have the clear advantage of paper. Even with a few key absences from their team (Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James, Ben Chilwell), a few players coming back from minor injuries (Cesar Azpilicueta and Mason Mount), and a €100M misfiring striker who has generally been a major disappointment (Lukaku), they are clear favorites over two legs.
Still, there is every reason to expect that Chelsea and their brand of “Tüchelball” will underwhelm just enough to keep this close, and maybe even allow Lille to force the tie to go beyond the planned 180 minutes.