Up in the posh seats, one extremely astute judge of talent was watching with interest. Chelsea were taking on Al-Hilal in the semi-finals of the Club World Cup and, as far as Arsène Wenger was concerned, the chance to have a close look at Kai Havertz was not to be missed.
For those near Wenger at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, it was impossible not to notice how much the former Arsenal manager appreciated Havertz’s game: the elusive movement, the way he kept popping up in unexpected positions, the sense that the Chelsea attacker was always on the verge of producing something special.
But it never quite happened for the young German. When he charged down the left and lifted a cross into the area in the 32nd minute, it required a defensive mix-up from Al-Hilal to gift Romelu Lukaku the winning goal. Then, when the former Bayer Leveruksen player tore through midway through the second half, he hit the post when he had the chance to score a magnificent solo goal.
It was another one of those nearly moments from Havertz. Sometimes it seems his curse is almost scoring great goals. He can be indulgent with his finishing and for all his elegant movement there are times when he seems reluctant to push the limits, which has stopped him from becoming a more dominant figure for Chelsea.
Nonetheless the depth of Havertz’s ability is obvious. Wenger glimpsed it from afar and Thomas Tuchel has seen it up close. So, too, have Havertz’s Chelsea teammates. They had faith even when he was struggling to adapt to English football last season. Seasoned players saw in training that Havertz was capable of moments of individual brilliance.
Yet he remains a work in progress: a £62m star who finds himself in the weird position of having secured his place in Chelsea’s history, only to find that nobody is quite sure whether he is going to make the most of his vast potential.
Havertz’s time at Chelsea has not been spectacular, but it has been special. It is not clear whether he is best as a false nine or a classic No 10. But what do you focus on more? The disappointment of six goals in 44 league appearances or the glory of scoring the winner against Manchester City in last season’s Champions League final? An inability to become a mandatory pick or the nerveless penalty that saw off Palmeiras when Chelsea became world champions for the first time this month?
The positive take is that Havertz, now 22, thrives under pressure. Based on his big-game record, he should be in his element when Chelsea face Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final. Havertz has already scored against Jürgen Klopp’s side this season – a clever header in front of the Kop last August – and Chelsea are more fluid and aggressive when he is up front instead of Lukaku, who was dropped against Lille last Tuesday.
Havertz took his chance against Lille. He pressed energetically, moved cleverly, linked the play and scored a good goal, so there is little reason for Tuchel to restore Lukaku to the lineup on Sunday.
However Havertz’s inconsistency means there are no guarantees he will rise to the occasion. He has not developed the relentlessness of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, whose productivity puts Chelsea’s misfiring forwards to shame.
This could be a galling experience for the Chelsea hierarchy. They have decent attacking players, but none belong to the elite. There is, as one staff member privately acknowledged this season, nobody in the class of Salah or Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne.
That, of course, is on Chelsea. “Thanks, José!” was how one figure put it recently, pointing out that Mourinho, during his second spell at Stamford Bridge, sold two players who are now among the Premier League’s best.
Salah was 21 when Chelsea signed him from Basel in 2014. The Egyptian was exciting but Mourinho did not take to him or De Bruyne. Both were banished to the sidelines and players from that era remember feeling embarrassed by Mourinho’s treatment of Salah.
Chelsea cannot head down that path again. This is the first time they will have faced Salah in a major final and one look at him in a red shirt should be enough to convince them not to let Liverpool profit from their impatience again.
Of course, too many expensive forwards are underperforming at Chelsea and it is not a surprise that some have grown unhappy. It is not just about Lukaku, who is probably going nowhere given that he cost £97.5m last summer. Tuchel also has to think about Timo Werner, who would probably benefit from a change of scenery, and there could be another difficult conversation if Christian Pulisic wants to leave.
Pulisic, under contract until 2024, could well turn out to be another Salah. The 23-year-old has not lived up to the hype since his £58m move from Borussia Dortmund in 2019 but he is not a lost cause. The American is a dynamic threat when confident and his goal against Lille, who could not handle his speed and directness, was a reminder of what he can do when fully fit.
These are complicated times for Chelsea. The summer could bring change but the memory of losing Salah and De Bruyne adds a layer of intrigue to the decision-making process.
It is a cautionary tale; one that tells Chelsea it would be wise to give Havertz room to grow. He has not pushed on as expected after his heroics against City last May, but he is heading in the right direction. After all, one of the reasons Chelsea have made it to Wembley is because of Havertz scoring in the semi-final against Tottenham. Maybe Arsène still knows.