Four minutes before half-time, with Borussia Dortmund still 1-0 up from the first leg, with Chelsea still playing in a way that was both careful and frantic, a team always trying to leave the house and constantly forgetting their keys, there was a sense of something being settled, some elemental question filtering across the Stamford Bridge pitch.
That question was not simply: can Chelsea actually score a goal? Although it was also, and to a very large degree, can Chelsea actually score a goal. But on a more basic level, it was: which way is this thing going to fall? What does the universe intend to do with Graham Potter? Will it be kind to him?
On his touchline Potter seemed to feel it, standing there a little hunched and stricken in his quilted overcoat, watching this happen to him. I have measured out my life in shanked shots. At which point Kalidou Koulibaly did something very difficult, producing a kind of anti-shot, volleying the ball backwards away from an open goal. Is this how it’s going to go?
A minute later Ben Chilwell slashed a shot wide, with the Chelsea bench already up leaping and clutching at each other in desperation. But this thing was still happening, the numbers still scrolling, the wind deciding which way to settle.
Two minutes before half-time Chilwell sniped down the left again, and pulled the ball back to Raheem Sterling. At which point Sterling air-kicked spectacularly, air-kicked so decisively the colours seemed to freeze and fade, the night starting to turn.
But wait. The ball had hit his standing leg. It lingered dutifully, still hoping to be of use. Sterling crash-tackled his way forwards and lashed it violently into the net, stopping the clock before it could hit eight hours of football without a Chelsea attacker scoring a goal.
On the touchline Potter whirled his hands at his hips, like a gunslinger pulling his pistols, touchingly lost in the moment. And by the end those four minutes felt like something passing, just a little, and just for now.
For Potter this match was, if not the Alamo, or Waterloo, or whatever, then a key point in divvying up what is left for him from here. Lose and Chelsea’s season would be all-but done, the age of Potter heading the same way.
But the night was kind to him here – and it was even more kind, really, exceptionally generous, five minutes into the second half. Chelsea were given a VAR-referred penalty for a soft interpretation of handball. Kai Havertz bobbled the kick on to the post. But wait again! Encroachment to the rescue! There were yellow shirts in the area, as well as blue ones. Havertz scored this time. And 2-0 turned out to be enough as Chelsea began to play a little more like a team, hanging on as Dortmund came at them late on.
And yes, they beat opponents here who, pound for dollar for euro, simply aren’t at their level. Chelsea have unregistered players who would walk into Dortmund’s XI. But victory here still came on the back of an agonising run of form, and with a team who were ready to fight. Perhaps it might turn into something else. At the very least it is impossible not to feel pleased for Potter, who remains a strangely captivating figure in the middle all this.
At times Potter to Chelsea has looked not just a poor or ill-timed appointment, but a candidate for worst marriage of club, board and manager in modern football history. Here they come, the dreamers, the rock stars of overspend, accompanied by a manager who looks both ways not twice but three times before crossing the road. Here is a business model so disruptive it is willing to disrupt its own methods, to combine mercurial, wild-west recruitment, with the epitome of the slow-burn process manager.
There is a kind of paradox in all this. Potter may look the most disposable part here, a man out of time, but he is probably also Chelsea’s best and most sensible move of the Todd Boehly era, the one person in the building who actually understands how to build a team, who speaks to the model being hacked into place.
As the second half ticked down the Chelsea fans taunted Dortmund’s travelling section with chants of “Who are you?” The answer to which is: a functioning model your owners are desperately trying to create, to scale up into their own Vegas-style talent factory.
In so many ways Dortmund are the anti-Chelsea: masters of the buy-low sell-high model, run by experts in the field, and the starkest of contrast with Boehly and his magic bus, a chief executive who looks like a retired celebrity magician and who appears to have spent a year on some kind of fact-finding mission, buoyed by a sense of they-ain’t-seen-nothin’-yet derring-do.
The fact is this Dortmund are not the star vehicle of years past. Niklas Süle is basically a three-seater sofa bed crammed into a football kit. Jude Bellingham is by some distance the star. The kind of footballers who once bloomed in Dortmund’s ranks are now at Brentford and Brighton. The money is too good, too early, too tempting.
There was a nice moment at the end as Potter celebrated with the Chelsea fans, gamely punching the air and letting out a slightly awkward roar. Victory keeps him in the job for a little longer at the very least. This can only be a good thing. Odd as it might sound, given those 10 defeats in 16 games, given the sense of terminal mismatch, he is still the most sensible person in this room.