The thrill of seeing Ross Barkley rescue Chelsea from the embarrassment of closing out the Roman Abramovich era by drawing with Watford had barely faded when a glimpse of the club’s future stepped on the Stamford Bridge pitch to pose for photographs and join in the end-of -term celebrations with Thomas Tuchel’s players.
Change was in the air as the home fans fixed their gaze on Todd Boehly and Hansjörg Wyss. Their consortium is close to buying the club from Abramovich and on the evidence of this slog of a performance they will need to be decisive and ambitious when the transfer window opens if Chelsea are going to have any chance of closing the gap on Manchester City and Liverpool next season.
There are defensive holes to fill and problems to solve in attack. Chelsea, who were close to blowing another home game when Dan Gosling headed Watford level in the dying stages, are simply not ruthless enough and Tuchel is not planning to give himself any time off before pre-season. “I can not go on holiday,” Chelsea’s manager said, making it clear his thoughts have already turned to rebuilding his squad. “It is impossible.”
It had been a day of farewells. There was Mike Dean refereeing a Premier League match for the final time and disappointingly failing to make it about himself. In the visiting dugout Roy Hodgson, who has endured a miserable second farewell tour, experienced brief elation when Gosling equalized and crushing disappointment when Watford’s inability to hold out for a point underlined why they have been relegated.
“I thought we’d do it again – a draw at home,” said Tuchel, who has spent much of the campaign bemoaning his opening shoddy finishing. The German was relieved to see Barkley respond to Watford’s equalizer by heading in a peach of a cross from Reece James, though in truth victory did little to lift the uncertainty hanging over Chelsea.
This may well have been César Azpilicueta’s final appearance in a blue shirt and there is no doubt that losing Antonio Rüdiger on a free transfer to Real Madrid was not part of the plan. Rüdiger was given a huge ovation after being substituted in the second half and he will not be the only defender to depart Chelsea this summer. Andreas Christensen is also heading for the exit, his move to Barcelona already agreed, while it remains to be seen if the Denmark international is joined at Camp Nou by Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso.
“We have to act as quickly as possible,” said Tuchel, who also gave Chelsea fans a chance to remember a couple of forgotten faces. There was a rare start in midfield for Saúl Ñíguez, whose loan from Atlético Madrid has not worked out, and even more astonishingly there was an appearance for Kenedy, who had gone so long without playing in the league for Chelsea that Watford seemed utterly thrown by his presence at left wing-back.
What an impact Kenedy made in Alonso’s place during the early stages. The Brazilian was full of energy as he ran at Kiko Femenía and he soon left his mark on the game, his decisiveness impressive as he took a pass from Hakim Ziyech in the 11th minute and fired in a low cross for Kai Havertz to give Chelsea the lead from close range.
The game already had the feel of a pre-season friendly. Even Tuchel was not his usual animated self on the touchline. The German remained impassive on the bench for much of the afternoon and it was not long before Chelsea began to toil, Havertz spurning chances and familiar failings threatening to offer Watford a route back into the contest.
Watford, who were watched by their incoming manager Rob Edwards, belatedly stirred. Kiko tested oudouard Mendy, who also had to be at his best to deny João Pedro at the start of the second half.
Chelsea, who brought Ben Chilwell off the bench for his first appearance since injuring a knee last November, were wobbling. Tuchel made changes, bringing on Malang Sarr and Barkley, but Watford fought back. They pounced with three minutes left, two substitutes combining, Adam Masina crossing and Gosling heading past Mendy.
Yet Chelsea, who have only won nine home games in the league this season, responded. Havertz found James, who twisted and turned on the right before crossing with the outside of his right foot. Barkley headed home and Boehly had finally seen Chelsea win a game in the flesh.