Sports

The Magic Christian

How Chelsea’s American star Christian Pulisic helped lead his team to the Champions League final.

Mason Mount of Chelsea celebrates with teammates Christian Pulisic and Ben Chilwell after scoring against Real Madrid.
Mason Mount of Chelsea celebrates with teammates Christian Pulisic and Ben Chilwell after scoring against Real Madrid. Clive Rose/Getty Images

It’s fitting that when Christian Pulisic played the pass that put the final nail in the Spanish superpower Real Madrid’s European coffin Wednesday, sending Chelsea to the Champions League final, he did it in the Spanish style.

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In Spanish soccer, there’s a concept known as la pausa, popularized most recently by Barcelona’s philosopher-monk (and Real Madrid nemesis) Xavi. The obvious translation is close but not quite correct. It’s more accurate to think of it as the proper change of pace: knowing when to go slow, even when to stop, and then when to speed back up again.

For a moment, it looked like Chelsea had squandered another opportunity. The omnipresent N’Golo Kanté has won a second ball, but his pass to Pulisic goes a little too far, taking the American narrow and drawing out Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. But Pulisic refuses to rush, faking the shot and then taking his time to step over the ball again. And once he gets there, he hits them with la pausa. 

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It’s just a split-second, but it’s crucial. Courtois realizes he’s come too far too soon and tries to back up. Sergio Ramos realizes he’s waited too long and starts to come forward. Pulisic threads the pass between them, waiting for Ramos’ step to make it easier to hit it past him. The scorer, Mason Mount, gets an extra half-second to get the jump on Éder Militão. Chelsea gets at least five minutes to breathe easy, knowing its berth in the final is secured. And Christian Pulisic has proved, in that brief moment on the sport’s biggest stage, that he’s well past just belonging on the field. The 22-year-old American has reached a point, now, where he’s making the world’s best look like they don’t belong.

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There is a long and storied history of Real Madrid getting embarrassed in Champions League and European Cup semifinals, even if it’s not quite as long as Real Madrid’s history of winning Champions League and European Cup finals. In 1973, Ajax midfielder Gerrie Mühren performed his own pausa against Madrid, one David Winner called “the most fondly cherished moment of Ajax’s ‘golden age’” during which it won three European Cups. So confident were Mühren and his teammates that when received a long pass around midfield early in the second half, he began juggling it while he waited for the next man to come open. Barcelona’s win over Real Madrid in 2011, one of four meetings between the two clubs in 18 days, confirmed the superiority of the Barcelona duo in two of the game’s great personal rivalries, those between superstar players Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and managers Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.

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In this two-leg semifinal, it’s been Pulisic doing the embarrassing and Courtois who’s been his victim. Last week in Madrid, Pulisic received a long pass over the defense, then danced on the ball while going not much of anywhere until Courtois came out of his goal to meet him. Standing upright, the Belgian shot-stopper with the Stretch Armstrong limbs is one of the more intimidating sights an offensive player can see between himself and the goal. Charging forward and diving to the ground, he’s just another defender to dribble past. Pulisic went around his outstretched hand and banked his shot off the arm of Raphaël Varane to give Chelsea a 1-0 lead.

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Madrid would tie that game through Karim Benzema, but thanks to the away goals rule, Chelsea had the advantage going into the second leg in London. It proved not to need it. Chelsea scored first in the 28th minute when German forward Timo Werner—whose finishing struggles have been well-documented this season—finished from point-blank range into an empty net after Kai Havertz’s chip bounced off the crossbar. Mount’s late goal might not have been necessary, but provided some relief after Chelsea had wasted a number of chances in the second half. Only Pulisic had the patience to deliver it for them.

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Since his first start under new manager Thomas Tuchel on March 13, Pulisic has started all but one of Chelsea’s Premier League games, with the one being last weekend’s against Fulham between the two Real Madrid matches. He’s scored three times in that span, consistently creating danger. He’s also played in each of the club’s Champions League games since then, scoring once, assisting once, and playing two or more key passes that led to shots in each of the last three. He’s looked good, in other words, a far cry from the player who less than two months ago had everyone wondering where he was going to go when he finally escaped from Chelsea. Definitely not a benchwarmer. Even if he doesn’t start the Champions League final—and anyone who says they know who Tuchel’s going to start is lying—you wouldn’t bet against a substitute appearance that would make him the first American man to play in a men’s Champions League final. (Manchester City’s American backup goalkeeper, Zack Steffen, could also play, but that would almost certainly mean City’s starter Ederson has gotten injured.)

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This is what Pulisic is capable of when he’s at his best. The fear, back when it appeared he was in Tuchel’s doghouse, was that the new manager would never give him the chance to show what he could do, or that he’d be too bothered by nagging injuries to get there. Now that he’s had his chance, now that he’s had a run of games where he has stayed healthy, there’s no doubt that he’s a star at this level, or at any level. To look at Ramos and Courtois and stop, to have the composure to say “No, actually, I’m good here,” and make them come to you, may be the best possible evidence of Pulisic’s form and mindset. There are few times in Ramos’ career where he’s looked so docile, and most of those involved Messi.

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Chelsea has six games left in its season, among them two against Leicester City in the league and the FA Cup final and another pair against Manchester City in the league and the Champions League final. All of Chelsea’s games matter from here on out. It’s competing both for the two trophies and the coveted fourth place finish in the Premier League that will ensure it qualifies for the Champions League next year. The “as long as he stays healthy” caveat still applies, but Pulisic is set to play a big part in the run-in. Hopefully that will include a part in the big cup final too, where he’ll get another chance to show that he can provide something that none of Chelsea’s other attackers can.

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