Thursday, March 22, 2018
Manchester City 1 Chelsea 0: Bernardo Silva strikes as champions hand over title with barely a fight
This was the Premier League champions against the champions-elect and the gulf felt even greater than the extraordinary 25 points that now separates fifth-placed Chelsea from top-of-the-table Manchester City.
One of the songs sung by the City fans is “we’re not really here”, a reminder of the days in the late 1990s when they were a third-tier team, but it was Chelsea who were not really here for this fixture.
Their travelling supporters, who sarcastically cheered when their team finally won a corner after 42 minutes, will have wondered what this was all about because it was a 1-0 hammering with the reaction of their star player, Eden Hazard, summing it all up.
Asked to play, again, as a ‘false’ number nine he ambled around disbelievingly as the ball sailed over his head until he was eventually substituted late on. Hazard then failed to acknowledge head coach Antonio Conte and although the Italian will point to the narrowness of the scoreline as some kind of misguided justification for his approach it felt more like a relegation team arriving at the Etihad than one which won the league last season.
Pep Guardiola had hailed Conte as a master tactician but there was nothing masterful about these tactics. It was five-at-the-back and try and hold on, to try and frustrate a vastly superior opponent for as long as possible. Although Conte may also point to the fact that it was a defensive error, by Andreas Christensen, that led to the only goal.
But that masks the poverty of his team’s performance and this result leaves them five points behind fourth placed Tottenham Hotspur in the fight to qualify for the Champions League. A fight they are losing.
Damagingly for Conte it was a fourth successive away defeat, and a fourth loss in their last five league games.
That would suggest he is under even more pressure but it is pretty certain that he is leaving at the end of this season, come what may, and he did little to suggest otherwise. The problem for Chelsea is the effect this has on the rest of their campaign.
For City it is 14 home wins in a row; they are 18 points clear at the top and need just 12 more points from nine games to be champions – although, probably, only 11 points given their vastly superior goal difference which should have been enhanced further in this match. Or this mis-match.
City also set a new record of 902 passes completed in a Premier League match, with an astonishing 68 per cent of those in the Chelsea half, and with their ‘holding’ midfielder – not that he had much defensive work to do – Ilkay Gundogan - having 181 touches. Again, the most ever in a Premier League game. Usually such statistics are compiled against relegation fodder. Not Champions League teams.
The one surprise was that City only had 71.1 per cent possession. It felt far more than that while, for Chelsea, the sight of Christensen, Antonio Rudiger or Cesar Azpilicueta hoofing the ball aimlessly up the pitch as they tried to relief the pressure was dispiriting. Sure they missed N’Golo Kante, who had to pull out through illness despite travelling to the stadium, but that only goes so far while it should be pointed out that Conte sanctioned the purchases of both Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud who only came on late into this game.
The fact is Conte was more concerned about not being thumped than trying to win and that is an indictment in itself. It is becoming a common theme in this league, when teams face City, but that is no excuse.
Chelsea are the champions. They should be going out on their shields; not like this.
So it was little more than a glorified game of attack versus defence which, once City scored, had no drama attached to it. The pace even dropped to pedestrian mid-way through the second-half and although Guardiola celebrated exuberantly at the end that said it all about how close they are to lifting the crown than beating Chelsea.
They should have been out-of-sight before, barely 30 seconds into the second-half, Gundogan played the ball forward and Christensen made a hash of clearing it from inside his own penalty area, striking it against Azpilicueta before it ran to Sergio Aguero.
The striker quickly slid a pass to the overlapping David Silva who sent in a low skimming cross to beyond the far post. Marcos Alonso was caught out as Bernardo Silva arrived and the Portuguese shot – shinned it – back across Thibaut Courtois and into the net.
Bernardo had spurned first-half chances while Azipilicueta had denied Leroy Sane, again at his elusive best, as he deftly cushioned a deep free-kick by Kevin De Bruyne and then struck a powerful shot beyond Courtois only for the defender to block on the goal-line. Courtois seized the rebound.
Maybe Chelsea had one chance. Soon after City scored they countered with the ball played out to Victor Moses but as Oleksandr Zinchenko attempted to cover Moses sliced his shot high and wide.
And that, pretty much, was it. Chelsea, for the first time since Opta started compiling such statistics in 2004, did not have a single shot on target. They had two, in total, both off target. At the same time City did not spurn a host of chances. But at least, unlike Chelsea, they were here and they played like champions.
Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea: Bernardo Silva scores winner seconds after half-time as Pep Guardiola's side close in on Premier League title
By Martin Samuel
Well, it had to happen eventually. Manchester City involved in a game that was not entirely scintillating, and did not have observers leafing through the dictionary for fresh litanies of superlatives.
They still won, though, and are now 18 points clear, so not much else has changed. The title could yet be wrapped up in the first April weekend, an astonishing achievement, this being a league that six clubs, at least, start the season thinking they can win. One of them, of course, is Chelsea, but they did not play like that on Sunday.
They did not play like reigning champions, either. They played like a team that thought it was second best, with no greater ambition than to contain and swindle a draw. It was terribly dispiriting to watch. Chelsea are better than this; or at least they should be.
So the anti-climactic nature of this match wasn’t really Manchester City’s fault.
Chelsea came with so little positive spark that this deteriorated into nothing more than a training exercise for long periods, and was played at a similar place. One Arsenal fan brought a duvet to keep out the cold when City travelled south last Thursday, and their goalkeeper Ederson could have done the same.
Indeed, had he then strung up a hammock between the posts and bedded down for the evening, it really wouldn’t have mattered.
Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, the full-backs, were responsible for Chelsea’s two shots and neither was on target. Eden Hazard was, for 78 minutes, the lone front man, a false nine, yet the service to him was so poor he was forced to come deeper and deeper, becoming a false ten, and on occasions a false eight, too.
Last week it was said he was tired – so why burn him out on this doomed mission? Might Olivier Giroud not have been a better target man? Might Hazard have been spared this excruciating ordeal?
Say what you like about Jose Mourinho, he never sent a Chelsea team out to play like this. He may have been pragmatic on occasions, but he was never so remorselessly shorn of intent.
And if this was how Antonio Conte wished to play, why waste such gifted players? Why bother with Hazard, or Willian, or Pedro or Cesc Fabregas? What did they have to gain from this?
Yes, the illness that deprived him of N’Golo Kante may have interfered with his game plan, but it wasn’t as if it denied Chelsea a great attacking force, making defence the only option. All Kante would have delivered is a better, more solid version of this, the belt to the braces.
It wasn’t as if there was a freewheelin’ Chelsea waited to break out from this strait-jacket. Manchester City went a goal up 35 seconds after half-time, and it took Conte until the 78th minute to bring a striker on, in Giroud. That says everything.
It was insulting, really, to consider he might think so little of the potential of his own players that he considers this the only way to approach City.
Conte may think Pep Guardiola fortunate to have the backing of his board and such a generous transfer budget, but that is not excuse. Chelsea are not Stoke, or some lower tier inferior.
They were champions last season when City had seven of Sunday's starters on the staff – albeit Ilkay Gundogan injured and Oleksandr Zinchenko out on loan.
Far worse teams than Chelsea – who had the better of Barcelona at Stamford Bridge recently, and were unlucky to draw, do not forget – have been more adventurous than the champions were here. Bristol City thought bigger in their two EFL Cup semi-finals.
Newcastle might get away with a negative approach as they scrap for survival, their players might recognise their own limitations against the best, understand why Rafa Benitez does not wish to go toe to toe at Liverpool; but Chelsea are not like that.
Hazard or Fabregas will not see themselves as inferiors, will not understand being asked to play this way. Withdrawn late in the game, Hazard looked every bit as alienated as he did at Leicester in Mourinho’s last season, and one wonders whether this match could mark a change in his relationship with this manager, too.
Alone upfront against Barcelona is one thing; alone at Manchester City, and left to chase high balls from bored, disaffected team-mates quite another. Chelsea looked as if they were going through the motions for long spells, shadowing City as they controlled the ball. Opta began measuring passing statistics in season 2003-04; since then, City’s total on Sunday, 902, is the most recorded in one match.
Yet few looked like piercing the darker blue barrier.
Still, the best team won. It could be said the only team won – the only team interested in winning, anyway. It was a scrappy goal, too. Andreas Christensen lost the ball and Sergio Aguero played David Silva in on the left. His cross was not cut out in the middle, but was met by Bernardo Silva at the far post.
He did not strike it cleanly, but goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had lost his footing changing direction in the Manchester rain and the ball skipped over his head as he struggled to recover.
There really wasn’t much else of note to report. David Silva almost made it two after 56 minutes with a shot that Courtois saved at his near post, and there were a couple of first-half chances, including one from Leroy Sane that Cesar Azpilicueta cleared off the line, but such was the paucity of Chelsea’s objective – and let’s hope this was not as dry run for their game plan at Barcelona later this month – that a second was not needed.
True, Chelsea now have the best aggregate against City of any Premier League team that has played them over two games this season – just a two-goal deficit – but they have taken zero points from those matches, so is that really such a boast?
Had Alonso’s late shot gone in, of course, arch-pragmatists will have argued the end justified the means. Yet that case can only be made with the result as mitigation. Chelsea did not get it.
They are beginning to lose touch with the top four, and sit five points off Tottenham, who they must beat at Stamford Bridge to stand a chance of reversing those positions. This was hardly the preparation for such an occasion.
Now is the time for bravery, for boldness, to take the risks that have seen City go 18 points clear. Chelsea were timid in the extreme; they did not get what they came for, but they got what they were worth.
Man City: Ederson, Walker, Otamendi, Laporte, Zinchenko (Danilo 87), De Bruyne, Gundogan, David Silva (Foden 90+3), Bernardo Silva, Aguero (Jesus 84), Sane.
Subs not used: Bravo, Kompany, Stones, Toure.
Goals: B Silva 46
Bookings: Zinchenko, Gundogan
Chelsea: Courtois, Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger, Moses, Fabregas, Drinkwater, Alonso, Willian (Giroud 78), Hazard (Morata 90), Pedro (Emerson 81).
Subs not used: Chalobah, Caballero, Zappacosta, Cahill.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man Utd 2 Chelsea 1: Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard score in comeback win to ease pressure on Jose Mourinho
Every manager who has ever feuded with Jose Mourinho knows that the time to worry is once he starts making peace with expansive public gestures of friendship, and talking with a laboured sincerity about a mutual responsibility to the game to be respectful.
The bad news for Antonio Conte is that he has already reached this point with Mourinho, his status as chief enemy revoked, his threat level radically downgraded.
This was a strange game, after which even Mourinho admitted that Chelsea had dominated the opening 45 minutes, but by the end of it the problems of the last few weeks looked significantly worse for Conte, and the United manager knew that he has more dangerous rivals than the current champions.
After an afternoon of handshake conventions fulfilled, Mourinho adopted his well-practised rueful peacemaker aspect to announce the end of bad vibes between him and Conte. Mourinho’s players had done well in the second half, most notably the two Chelsea old boys, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, the former scoring the first and creating the second for Jesse Lingard. Matic shut the back door on Chelsea – and even when Conte unleashed his full firepower on United it barely made a difference.
It was hard to say how Chelsea lost from having a first-half lead given to them by Willian, showing some of the sparkling form of Tuesday’s draw with Barcelona and well assisted by Eden Hazard.
Scott McTominay will always remember the day he had to mark one of the English game’s finest talents. By and large the young midfielder did a good job. By 75 minutes, Conte judged his No 10 to be exhausted and replaced him with Pedro.
Mourinho said later that it was the technical aspects of his team’s first-half performance that meant they started slowly, some high-level detail about the pressing distances and the shape of his “midfield square”. Once they got that right, he said, it was a different matter. “We can be speaking about tactics and positions and football science but I think to win against the big teams – and it happens when other teams like Newcastle beat us – the attitude has to be really special, and the players showed that.”
Lukaku’s mastery of the ball is often imperfect, but he hung in there and scored a good equaliser before half-time and then clipped in a cross for the substitute Lingard to head in at the near post. There was a first-half moment before the goal when Old Trafford sighed at the ease with which Antonio Rudiger dispossessed the United striker, and yet he turned it around.
The next time United are back at Old Trafford it will be Liverpool, against whom they conceded the initiative of their early-season promise when they played so defensively in the draw at Anfield in October. That will be an even more serious test than Chelsea, who have now lost three of their last four league games and find themselves in fifth and in serious danger, as Conte admitted, of missing out on the Champions League places.
The Chelsea manager had begun the game shaking hands with Mourinho, and there was a moment during the match when the latter seemed to successfully break the chill with a joke. Conte kept the celebrations for Willian’s goal at the lower end of the scale by his standards, although at that point he may have felt he was going to see something different from his team.
“You have to manage the game better and with experience, with maturity, get three points,” he said later. “Instead for another time we are talking about a loss and we must be very disappointed.”
There was one grievance over an offside decision against Alvaro Morata in the 85th minute when he put the ball in United’s goal from a pass by substitute Cesc Fabregas, for which Conte again demanded the swift introduction of video assistant referees. This one was hard to judge, with many of the United players seeming to have stopped at the first sign of the flag being raised.
Chelsea had counter-attacked beautifully for the goal, Willian winning a header in his own area and bringing the ball clear. He passed it into Hazard and continued his run, anticipating the excellent return pass from his team-mate, who doubled back before releasing. The Brazilian beat David De Gea at his near post, a shot that you could say the United goalkeeper should have dealt with better.
The equaliser arrived seven minutes later when Lukaku, with his back to goal, laid the ball off to Matic, and from there it went to Alexis Sanchez and on to Anthony Martial, who played a short ball into the path of Lukaku as he ran through a crowded area.
On this occasion, his touch did not let him down: there was one with the left foot to control it and the right foot to bury it.
In the second half, Lukaku had already forced an excellent save from Thibaut Courtois with a flying volley from Sanchez’s cross when he delivered a near-post cross for Lingard, who had gone on in place of Martial, to head in. Conte ended the game with Olivier Giroud and Morata in attack and Fabregas on for Danny Drinkwater, but nothing worked and all that was left for him was another defeat, and Mourinho’s condolences, which must have been a very bitter pill indeed.
Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea: Romelu Lukaku scores one and creates another for Jesse Lingard as Jose Mourinho's men hit back after Willian's opener to beat his former club at Old Trafford
By Ian Ladyman for the Daily Mail
Romelu Lukaku’s performance said everything about him and this Manchester United team. This is what he — and they — can do when the mood takes them. The challenge now is to do it more often.
This was a game that United deserved to win. They deserved it because they responded better than Chelsea to Willian’s opening goal.
They created the better chances in the second half and, for the last hour, were progressive while Chelsea, surprisingly, were not.
Chelsea should and could have taken a draw. Alvaro Morata had a poor afternoon but he had the ball in the net with four minutes to go and was incorrectly ruled offside. So, Antonio Conte and his players left Old Trafford with something to feel genuinely sore about.
But that does not change the fact United were better. After a poor start to the game, they were a little sharper and just a little more cohesive than Chelsea in key areas. Jose Mourinho also made better substitutions than Conte and one of them — Jesse Lingard for Anthony Martial — effectively won him the game.
So this was an afternoon for United to renew faith. Beating the big teams has always been a prerequisite at this club and here was a reminder that Mourinho remains a manager who knows how to do it.
The mystery is why United can’t raise themselves to these levels more often. Too often United — and expensive players such as Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez — are too passive in their play. They do not exude the authority that should come with their status, not to mention their ability.
On this occasion, Lukaku was the difference. The Belgian scored one and made one and was dangerous throughout.
Had he been playing for Chelsea, one of his former clubs, the result would probably have been different. Lukaku was clinical while Morata was not.
Chelsea, with Eden Hazard also having a poor game, were blunt when they reached the edge of the penalty area while, at the other end, United grew more dangerous as the afternoon went on.
It looked very different at 1-0 to Chelsea. Conte’s team had started the brighter and Morata volleyed a cross from Marcos Alonso on to the crossbar in only the fourth minute. So when they took the lead after half an hour, it looked as though they would take the game away from United.
It was a brilliantly taken goal from Willian, Chelsea’s player of the moment. The Brazilian with the electric turn of pace picked up the ball in his own half when Pogba inexcusably failed to challenge Victor Moses in the air and passed to Hazard before racing forward. The Belgian’s return pass was superb and far too good for a United defence and midfield which had too many players in the wrong positions.
As Willian headed into the penalty area, the angles seemed to be against him and it looked briefly as though he might feed Morata to his left. Maybe that is what David de Gea thought, too, because the United goalkeeper seemed to be surprised when the shot arrived, with power, at his near post.
It was through him before he could adjust and Chelsea had a 1-0 lead that had been coming.
The following 10 minutes turned out to be the most important of the game. United looked vulnerable and almost immediately there were half-chances for Hazard and Alonso. Neither were taken and, as Chelsea seemed reluctant to land a killer blow, United responded with an equaliser.
Lukaku’s touch fails him at times but it can also be very good. Here, he outmuscled N’Golo Kante on the edge of the penalty area to lay the ball back to Sanchez and, when it came back to him 12 yards out via a nice pass from Martial, he controlled it well and placed his shot past Thibaut Courtois and into the corner.
The 22nd goal of Lukaku’s debut United season, it was his first against a team higher than ninth in the table. That statistic will continue to haunt him until he does this more regularly.
Nevertheless, it gave United a platform and, from that moment on, they had the edge. Sanchez was once again disappointing but the Chilean did provide the cross from which Lukaku swivelled in mid-air to volley towards goal in the second half.
Courtois touched that one over but could do nothing about the key play with 15 minutes left.
Lukaku’s cross from the right should probably have been stopped at source and then the 21-year-old defender Andreas Christensen got caught under the ball as Lingard headed in from eight yards.
It was a poor goal to concede and summed up the way Chelsea’s afternoon had deteriorated.
Christensen, of course, was the player who erred when Lionel Messi equalised in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge last Tuesday.
He should also have been tighter to Lukaku for the first goal, so this is a time to question Conte’s wisdom in picking him ahead of the more experienced Gary Cahill.
But mistakes from a young defender are not why Chelsea lost this game. For once, Mourinho’s United team found a way to impose themselves on an important match and take a result away from a big opponent.
They will have another chance soon enough. They play Liverpool here in a fortnight.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Valencia 6, Smalling 6, Lindelof 6, Young 6; McTominay 6.5, Matic 7.5; Sanchez 6 (Bailly 80mins 6), Pogba 6, Martial 5.5 (Lingard 63mins 8); Lukaku 8.5
Subs not used: Mata, Carrick, Rashford, Shaw, Pereira
GOALS: Lukaku 39, Lingard 75
BOOKED: Matic, Morata
JOSE MOURINHO: 8
CHELSEA (3-4-2-1): Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 6, Christensen 5.5, Rudiger 6; Moses 6 (Giroud 77mins 6), Kante 6, Drinkwater 6 (Fabregas 75mins 6), Alonso 6; Willian 7, Hazard 6 (Pedro 73mins 6); Morata 5.5
Subs not used: Caballero, Zappacota, Cahill, Palmieri
GOALS: Willian 30
ANTONIO CONTE: 6.5
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson 7.5
MAN OF THE MATCH: Romelu Lukaku
Thursday, February 22, 2018
Lionel Messi breaks his duck against Chelsea to earn draw for Barcelona
Daniel Taylor at Stamford Bridge
In the end, it turned out to be a harsh reminder for Chelsea about the realities of the Champions League and, unfortunately for Andreas Christensen, a personal ordeal for the player who has been trusted by Antonio Conte to assume a position in the heart of the team’s defence.
Christensen has filled the role with distinction for the most part this season but his wayward pass in the 75th minute was a calamitous mistake that could have serious ramifications for his team’s hopes of reaching the quarter-finals. Chelsea had been leading, courtesy of Willian’s goal, and showing all their better qualities.
Yet no side can defend this generously and expect to get away with it. Not, at least, when the opposition has Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi among its front line.
Messi’s goal was his first against Chelsea in nine attempts and in that moment the advantage swung towards Barça ahead of the return leg. Chelsea had looked vulnerable as soon as Christensen committed the defender’s sin of playing the ball across the front of his own penalty area. If the pass was intended for Cesc Fàbregas, it was not entirely clear.
The ball went from one side of the pitch to the other and, in his desperation to cut it out, César Azpilicueta put his team in even more danger by lunging in and failing to make contact. Iniesta was free. Messi, as always, was backing him up. And it is tempting to think Chelsea might live to regret that combination of errors in the second leg at the Camp Nou on 14 March.
Nonetheless, Conte refused to blame Christensen, who was chosen ahead of the experienced Gary Cahill. “No, absolutely no, no, no,” he insisted. “Christensen’s performance was great, incredible. He is only 21 years old, it’s great that he’s able to play this game with his maturity and personality. He was one of the best players tonight. A top, top game and I’m very pleased for his performance.”
Even so, it was still a frustrating night for Conte and his players bearing in mind the 13-minute spell when they had the lead and seemed to have the measure of their opponents.
Eden Hazard had frequently unsettled the visiting defence. Thibaut Courtois was scarcely troubled in Chelsea’s goal and the home side could also reflect on two moments in the first half when Willian tried his luck from 20 yards out and – agonisingly, almost implausibly – both shots came back off the woodwork.
The first was just before the half-hour mark when the ball thudded off Marc-André ter Stegen’s left-hand post. Ten minutes later, Willian tried again from the same distance, 20 yards out, and this time his shot ricocheted off the other upright.
Stamford Bridge howled with anguish but these were encouraging moments for Chelsea and when Willian tried for a third time, in the 62nd minute, he had seen a small gap inside the right-hand post and picked it out beautifully.
More than anything, the frustration for Chelsea was exacerbated by the sense that the team currently seven points clear at the top of La Liga might be running out of ideas. Barça had played every kind of pass bar the killer variety.
They did not manage a shot on target in the first half and it was unusual, in particular, to see Luis Suárez looking as subdued as he did in the opening 45 minutes. These are the occasions – the big nights, under the floodlights, with the Champions League anthem blaring – when Suárez usually loves to compete with Messi for the leading role. Not here, though.
Instead, the narrative came back – as it often does – to the little guy wearing Barca’s No 10 shirt. Messi did not invent the art of dribbling but he has certainly taken it to its highest level.
One early slalom left Antonio Rüdiger in such a fix it was difficult not to feel a pang of sympathy for the defender. Messi then proceeded to remind everyone that too much time had been wasted in the build-up to this match analysing his lack of goals in these fixtures.
His movement, his distribution, the deftness of touch – as much as Chelsea’s fans must have wished the ball could avoid him, they will surely realise these are moments to treasure. And Messi, true to form, had not yet finished with Rüdiger.
Equally, Messi’s influence had waned after the interval and Chelsea were looking relatively comfortable as the game reached the final quarter of an hour. They had defended stoutly, with N’Golo Kanté having one of his better performances in front of the back four.
Chelsea did not start with an orthodox centre-forward but the speed and movement of Hazard, Willian and Pedro always made them dangerous on the counterattack. Willian’s goal was a peach and, frankly, it felt ludicrous that Conte is widely assumed to be on his way out in the summer. Stamford Bridge, once again, felt like a happy place.
Yet this was a big night for Christensen, only 21, and there were some tell-tale signs, perhaps, in the first half when he misdirected what should have been a routine pass and sent the ball out for a corner.
His next mistake was far more serious and, though Messi will inevitably dominate the headlines, the goal would never have been possible had it not been for Iniesta’s brilliant anticipation. Messi was waiting, unmarked, and was never going to let Chelsea off the hook.
Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1: Lionel Messi punishes single mistake to take crucial away goal to Nou Camp
When it finally came, perhaps Chelsea thought that the first goal Lionel Messi would score against them after all those games would be something truly remarkable, one of those moments that defied explanation and could simply be filed away as an act of genius that no mortal could stop.
Instead, the first goal Messi scored against Chelsea in nine games and 730 minutes – the 98th of his Champions League career – came from a rank poor pass from Andreas Christensen, the kind of hostage to fortune that might well have been converted by West Bromwich Albion. That it came amid one of the most intense, well-drilled Chelsea performances in Europe of recent years was Antonio Conte’s misfortune – of all the club’s meetings with Barcelona in recent history and it had to be his.
At the point Messi scored, 75 minutes into a classic Champions League tie, Barcelona had enjoyed around 75 per cent of the possession and zero per cent of the goals – the tie itself was tipped marginally in favour of the home team by virtue of a second-half Willian strike. Conte’s team had played Barcelona off the back foot, but they had played them brilliantly and Messi himself had not been afforded enough of the space he usually seeks out.
When the equaliser came, it felt like a gift. There are so many ways in which Messi and Barcelona can break the hearts of their opponents and perhaps they would have done so anyway at the Nou Camp on March 14, regardless of what might have been achieved by Chelsea in this home leg.
But this magnificent team, unbeaten in their domestic league this season, do not need any assistance to score a goal and, unfortunately, that was what Chelsea’s young Danish defender gave them.
Messi celebrated with the vehemence of a man who seemed to know that was one small kink ironed out of the great history he has written, and you could sense the deflation among the home support. “If you make mistakes against opponents like Messi and Andres Iniesta, you pay,” Conte said later.
The Chelsea manager rightly refused to blame Christensen, arguing that it was a fine balance at all times between youth and experience, to try to find the right players to carry out his game plan.
He was so close to getting it right, including the decision to drop Gary Cahill in favour of Christensen, and there was still a spark of hope in Conte afterwards that his team can reach the quarter-finals, however difficult it might be. Certainly the form of Willian suggests he is reaching top gear with a brilliant, brave performance in which he carried the fight to Barca at all times.
This was not a night for attacking players to stand around with their hands on their hips complaining about lack of service and so Willian worked hard for every chance, struck a post twice in the first half and buried his chance with the one decent sight of goal that he was afforded. He had looked impressive against Hull City in the FA Cup on Friday, but it is one thing doing it against the Championship strugglers and another stepping it up against Barcelona. For a start, Hull had 18 per cent more possession than Chelsea managed against Barcelona in this first leg.
That was always going to be a problem and there were periods of the first half when Chelsea had to adjust to life without the ball. Barcelona finished with around 73 per cent of possession over the 90 minutes – depending on whose statistics you read – and yet by the end Conte’s players had adapted well to a new way of playing that involved Willian and Eden Hazard breaking on their opposition.
They tried to get out quickly and switch the play when possible, with Antonio Rudiger on the left side of the defence often looking to hit a long diagonal in the direction of Victor Moses on the right wing.
Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic pulled the strings for Barcelona from deep midfield, but they did so at a safe distance as far as Chelsea were concerned. Rakitic rode his luck in the first half after an early booking for a foul on Willian and two challenges after that which could have got him in trouble.
As for Messi, we were treated to a few moments in the first half when he spun and ran at Chelsea, and one glorious feint which had Rudiger standing on the wrong foot as the great man glided past him.
Messi is at the stage of his career when the reverence for him in the opposition is unmistakable, and there are few on the pitch who can recall a time when he was not the king – even if on this occasion his goal was among the easier ones he has scored.
The Barcelona possession count edged up past 80 per cent during the first half, with Conte urging his side forward, encouraging them to put pressure on the away team’s back four. Hazard dragged Barcelona’s defence left after 33 minutes and then Willian took the ball in space in the middle and hit a right-footed shot against Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s left post. He clipped the other post eight minutes later.
The rehabilitated Tottenham Hotspur old boy Paulinho had a quiet night, eventually substituted having headed wide a cross from Messi after 15 minutes. N’Golo Kante covered the breadth of the pitch and he was a formidable barrier against Barcelona, who were arguably at their least dangerous when they were attacking corners.
It was from a Barcelona corner, claimed by Thibaut Courtois, that the Willian goal began.
The Chelsea goalkeeper dropped the ball quickly at the feet of Cesc Fabregas, from where it went left to Hazard, right to Willian and, eventually, Chelsea’s corner was won on the left side.
Hazard spotted Willian outside the Barcelona area in a promising amount of space, and the Brazilian stepped past Busquets to shape a right-footed shot inside Ter Stegen’s left post.
Before the Barcelona equaliser Chelsea might have had a second when Willian broke down the right and elected not to pass to his unlikely breakaway partner, Kante.
From Christensen’s ill-advised pass across the face of his goal that Cesar Azpilicueta was just inches from reaching, Iniesta created the goal for Messi. In that moment the tie changed, and it had taken only one slip of concentration.
Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Lionel Messi takes advantage of Andreas Christensen's mistake to finally break his duck and spoil the Willian show at Stamford Bridge
By Martin Samuel
He wasn't the man of the match. That was Willian. His team didn't have the best chances. Those fell to Chelsea. Yet if Barcelona approach the second leg as undoubted favourites, and they do, it is Lionel Messi that is responsible. Again.
One chance, one goal. That is all he needs. And Messi got it because he, allied with Barcelona's relentless forward drive and immense levels of possession, will terrify any opposition. Raw defenders in possession, in particular.
Andreas Christensen hadn't looked happy with the ball at his feet all night. He had already sliced one attempted pass behind him for a corner in the first half. Yet Chelsea kept trying to play their way out of trouble, giving their least experienced defender the ball in tight spots as Barcelona harried and chased. Something had to give, and eventually it did.
Christensen received the ball deep on the left and as Barcelona closed played a suicidal pass across his own back line to the right side. Miscued, misplaced it turned into a 50-50 for Cesar Azpilicueta, one the Chelsea man was a substantial outsider to win.
He dived in, going to ground rashly in sheer desperation, missing his tackle, and allowing Andres Iniesta to slip the ball inside. When it became apparent who was waiting, there was no doubting the outcome. No side have held out longer against Messi than Chelsea, 730 minutes of football until this point.
His first game against them was the last Barcelona victory in their meetings, almost 12 years ago to the day, but he has never scored – before Tuesday night. So that is another record broken. The finish was perfect, assured, near post. Never in doubt. Yet for a time, Barcelona's advantage in this tie was.
It was fitting, perhaps, that Willian was temporarily off the pitch when Barcelona's goal occurred, receiving treatment on a bloodied lip. He didn't deserve not to be on the winning side, so at least he was not literally present when Chelsea conceded.
For if this was an excellent team performance, given the low expectations for Chelsea in this tie, it was arguably Willian's finest 90 minutes in a blue shirt. He hit the right post, he hit the left post, before finally getting his rightful reward with a goal after 62 minutes. Third time lucky, some said. But there was nothing lucky about it.
Eden Hazard played a curling pass across the edge of the area, and Willian did what he does best, sizing it up before as good as passing it into the net from 20 yards out. In these moments, he reminds of no-one more than Thierry Henry, the same glorious precision in front of goal, shots stroked so delightfully they have the accuracy of passes, and only slightly more power. Frank Lampard is another antecedent, the way he would maraud upfield, always with an eye for the goal, as much as the killer pass.
And while Barcelona may have had the superior passing statistics, Chelsea came closest to scoring and were more than worth their draw. The English team that looked to have pulled the shortest Champions League straw will travel to the Nou Camp next month with a small reserve of optimism few thought possible when this draw was announced.
They have shocked this team before, in considerably more desperate circumstances, and there have now been eight meetings since the last Barcelona win on February 22, 2006. In that period there have been two Chelsea wins, and six draws – but that is why the advantage remains with Barcelona this time.
A low scoring draw will still do them; 0-0 and they progress on away goals, 1-1 and the match goes to extra time. Still, it's better than many hoped. Before this first leg, a lot of Stamford Bridge regulars were more concerned with damage limitation.
Yet if there has been a theme this week it is that possession, in itself, can be a false indicator, and so it was on Tuesday night, too. Chelsea often played Wigan to Barcelona's Manchester City – but with one, big, difference. Chelsea had more shots at goal, as many shots on target and the two closest shaves of the 90 minutes. Barcelona have every right to fear them, and the prowling Willian in particular, when the teams reconvene.
True, for long periods Chelsea were observers in their own stadium, as Barcelona hogged the ball – reaching 81 per cent possession at one stage – yes they may have misplaced passes and then been forced to watch Barcelona control the play for minutes on end, and yes, N'Golo Kante may have mustered two touches and one tackle in the opening 29 minutes, but Chelsea could have led at half-time, and by more than one.
It is immensely energy sapping trying to contain Barcelona's brilliance, but Chelsea did so. Luis Suarez was barely in it, apart from one save and one dive, while Messi was mesmerising but his wider influence often limited.
Of course, his intelligence is always apparent, his wit, his will, his genius ability to conjure a chance from nowhere, and it was unfortunate that his moment of finest creation fell to Paulinho who appeared to have his Tottenham head on. Using it, he steered the ball wide of the target.
Chelsea had the best of it overall, lengthy exercises of keep ball aside. Antonio Conte gambled by playing Hazard through the middle upfront, a ploy that has not always worked against considerably inferior opposition in the Premier League this season. On this occasion, however, it paid dividends.
Ably supported by the outstanding Willian, Hazard matched Messi in the battle of the tens, found space, teased Barcelona's defensive midfield and, on occasions, terrified their full-backs. Barcelona did not look like a side unbeaten in La Liga this season, Chelsea far from a team with four wins in 13.
It was a short period towards the end of the first half, that could have seen Chelsea pull clear. In the 33rd minute, Hazard fed Willian who cut inside, drifting past Sergio Busquets before unleashing a shot of such venom, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen could only look on helplessly. It hit his left post and rebounded out, fortunately to Barcelona's advantage, and the danger passed.
Seven minutes later, pretty much the same again. Willian once more, on the opposite side of the penalty area, striking ter Stegen's right post with a shot from outside. At least the Barcelona goalkeeper had time to dive this time.
Nor did the pressure abate as, three minutes before half-time, Chelsea floated a free-kick in, only half cleared by Barcelona's back line. The ball fell to Hazard on the volley on the edge of the area, his shot considerably closer to the target than was first imagined as it disappeared over the bar.
Yes, we know what we think will happen on March 14, but Chelsea have surprised before. Messi may be on the scoresheet, but that doesn't mean he is guaranteed a berth in the quarter-finals, too.
CHELSEA (3-4-3): Courtois 6.5, Azpilicueta 7.5, Christensen 6, Rudiger 7, Moses 7.5, Fabregas 6.5 (Drinkwater 83), Kante 6.5, Alonso 6.5, Willian 9, Hazard 8, Pedro 6 (Morata 83)
Subs not used: Caballero, Giroud, Zappacosta, Cahill, Hudson-Odoi
Goals: Willian 62
Bookings: Rudiger, Morata
Manager: Antonio Conte
BARCELONA (4-4-2): Ter Stegen 5.5, Segi Roberto 7, Pique 6.5, Umtiti 6, Alba 7, Rakitic 6.5, Busquets 6.5, Paulinho 6.5 (Vidal 63), Messi 8, Luis Suarez 6.5, Iniesta 7 (Gomes 90)
Subs not used: Cillessen, Denis Suarez, Dembele, Digne, Vermaelen
Goals: Messi 75
Bookings: Rakitic, Suarez, Busquets
Manager: Ernesto Valverde
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)
Lionel Messi ends goal drought against Chelsea to hand Barcelona crucial Champions League away goal
Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1: Messi's well-taken finish changed the complexion of the tie after Willian's opener and Barca will take a slender advantage back to the Camp Nou
Miguel Delaney Stamford Bridge
Barcelona come away from Stamford Bridge with the slimmest of possible advantages in a Champions League knockout, and that so fittingly reflecting the engaging tightness of this game, but so frustratingly coming from the one moment that Chelsea had allowed the gap between the teams to become so tangibly evident.
It also allowed Lionel Messi to inevitably end what had been one of the most notable negatives on his record, as he finally got his first goal against Chelsea and Thibaut Courtois. He did so inevitably exploiting the space offered up by a kamikaze Andreas Christensen pass. That gave Barca a 1-1 draw and means Chelsea simply have to score in the return in three weeks, having also undone the ingenuity displayed by Willian.
This was the greater frustration for Antonio Conte and his side. Willian’s goals had many of the same qualities as his manager’s game plan: he so expertly calculated the exact angles and space allowed to maximise the tightest of openings, in the same way his manager had worked out how to reduce the much-discussed gap between the English champions and Spanish leaders.
Over 90 minutes’ work, and so many hours on the training ground, were then undone by one slip. The Argentine great was ultimately given such an easy goal, after so many difficulties against this team.
Then again, that shows the level of side Chelsea were playing in Barca, the level of star they were up against in Messi, and the different kind of quality to this match.
Whereas so many of their pulsating past meetings have ultimately involved games exploding to produce some epic events, this was all about exploiting the finest of margins, the smallest of spaces.
It is also why one of Conte’s shows of angers will have felt more justified.
With Hazard as a false nine and the remaining nine outfield players charged with sitting sturdily before striding out – and that best displayed by the mostly brilliant Antonio Rudiger – Chelsea had initially done a fine job of so frustrating Barca.
It did somewhat play into the English side’s feet that this was probably as constrained and compact a Barca as they’ve ever faced. Whereas they used to flow out from possession, here they continue to build with it before abruptly striking, the players all so close together so that they’re always moving en masse.
It means two different individual things for this team, that are going to end up deciding this tie. One is that Messi is at the centre of everything more than before in terms of position, but also in terms of influence. To a much greater degree than ever before, the attacks come through him. It is often as if there can’t be a key moment without him, as he was to prove so emphatically.
Even before his strike, there was the free header created for Paulinho, and then an opportunity from a set-piece for Gerard Pique.
The other consequence is that, as compact as Barca are and as much as it allows them to control games, they are so suddenly open if you do manage to successfully counter against them and get in behind.
So it was on the two occasions that Willian it the frame of the goal. He rarely needs much invitation to strike from distance, but the space that opened up in front of him for both strikes implored him even more. He twice hit the ball so cleanly, but not quite clinically accurate enough.
The Brazilian was evidently just warming up, however, and finding his range as well as finding the space.
The one thing about games like this that necessarily involve the most reduced space and smallest of gaps is that they also involve the players most adept at ingeniously maximising such limitations.
It’s just that, while everyone expected that would eventually come from Messi and Iniesta, it initially came from Willian. On 62 minutes, he superbly used the reduced space to his benefit, as he used Barca defenders to shield himself from Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s eyeline before expertly guiding the ball around the goalkeeper and yet somehow inside the post.
This was clinical, and so classy.
There is an argument that Chelsea should have pressed home from there rather than dangerously sit on their lead but, whatever tactics you decide, they’re always going to be rendered moot when a defender does something as cataclysmic as Christensen.
It must have felt so unfair for Conte. After a match that had displayed how much he had drilled his side to shut down all space, the defender – normally so reliable – opened it up with the type of pass you might have expected from a Barca creator. To just gift it to them made it all the more galling.
In that kind of situation, the rest of the Chelsea backline was always going to struggle, and players like Iniesta and Messi were always going to take advantage.
They now take the advantage to Camp Nou and, even if it as slim as it can possible be, it gives Conte and his side an even bigger job for that return.
Chelsea 4 Hull City 0: Olivier Giroud off the mark for Blues as striker bags his first goal in FA Cup stroll
It will be Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and others at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday but for the warm-up act it was a struggling Hull City from the Championship fielding a makeshift team in an FA Cup fifth-round tie that was over within half an hour for Antonio Conte’s team.
This was not a great night for the Cup, especially when Nigel Adkins made seven changes from his previous Championship team and a side already suffering around 12 injuries and ineligible players were taken apart with four Chelsea goals in the first half. You only need to know that two of Adkins’ regular back four are Chelsea loanees Michael Hector and Ola Aina, both unable to play in this tie, and a third Chelsea man Fiyako Tomori was also absent for the same reason.
There was a first Chelsea goal for Olivier Giroud since his arrival from Arsenal last month, and there were moments when the Brazilian Willian gave Hull a reminder of what the quality was like in the Premier League – including a goal within 106 seconds of the kick-off. Willian scored twice before half-time and there was another from Pedro, with Hull looking every inch a team who were trying to get in and out of west London with the minimum of embarrassment.
Conte gave a debut to his other January signing, the left-back Emerson Palmieri from Roma, and later he brought on another debutant, Kyle Scott, a 20 year-old from the academy who has largely been making up the numbers in the first-team training sessions. There were two 17 year-olds on the pitch for Chelsea in the second half, with Ethan Ampadu starting the game at the centre of a three-man defence and Callum Hudson-Odoi, the academy’s latest hot prospect, a replacement for Pedro.
Willian’s performance has given Conte reason to consider his line-up for Tuesday’s Champions League round of 16 first leg, with the Chelsea manager admitting. “I'm very happy. Before an important game, against Barcelona, tonight I go to my house with many doubts in my mind, which is the best starting XI to start the game against Barcelona. But it's right to be so. We must take the right time to make the best decision to pick the best XI to start that game.”
A very different Hull team had unexpectedly beaten Nottingham Forest at the City Ground the previous Saturday but with a Championship game against Middlesbrough awaiting on Tuesday, Adkins was a manager with a lot of injuries to deal with and priorities elsewhere.
He was without his top goalscorer Jarrod Bowen who, Adkins said later, might miss Tuesday’s game with a damaged hamstring. “We came with a game-plan,” Adkins said, and admitted that the plan did not make it to the end of the second minute, although his team managed to get through the second half without conceding. “Everyone knew our situation – and within a couple of minutes it goes out of the window. We gifted them the opportunities to score some goals in the first half.
“But, wow, Chelsea have got some good players and counter-attack so quickly. In the second half, fair credit to them [Hull], they gave it a go and we did what we had hoped to do initially.”
The 2014 FA Cup finalists are toppling badly, a point outside the Championship relegation zone and suffering all the familiar symptoms of a club in crisis: an owner desperate to sell, a fanbase in rebellion and a squad patched together. They missed a second-half penalty taken by David Meyler who had been one of those Hull players suffering in their attempts to put a challenge in on Willian in the first half.
It was a brutal first half for Kevin Stewart, previously of Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, who was guilty of losing possession to Giroud twice for the first and third goals, both scored by Willian. The Brazilian is clearly a cut above anyone on the Hull team and he punctuated the first half with a few moments of great quality, a flick with the instep, and two goals dispatched – one with his left foot and one with his right.
For his first, Willian hit a brilliant shot past David Marshall after Stewart had turned into trouble in midfield. His second goal, and Chelsea’s third, was hit with his right, shaped inside the post after Stewart had again been dispossessed by Giroud.
Between times there was a ball flighted over the top of Hull’s defence by Cesc Fabregas which Pedro took with an immaculate first touch with his right and beat Marshall with his left. The fourth came just before half-time when Meyler had the ball put through his legs by Emerson on the left and Giroud clipped a near-post shot in from the cross for his first Chelsea goal.
There was a penalty for Hull in the second half, conceded without complaint by Fabregas who was far too slow getting across to challenge Harry Wilson, on loan at Hull from Liverpool. The 20 year-old landed awkwardly on his shoulder, and eventually had to go off as a consequence, although not before he had seen Meyler’s penalty saved by Willy Caballero, who got the rebound too.
Alvaro Morata came off the bench to replace Giroud and it will be interesting to see who Conte starts from the pair in the Champions League tie on Tuesday. The Chelsea manager confirmed that Marcos Alonso will be back for that tie. “I consider Barcelona one of the best teams in the world,” Conte said later. “On one side, you must be a bit sad to play against them. But, on the other hand, you must be excited. You have to try and compete with them at this level. It won't be easy, for sure, but we must have the right confidence and then we'll see what happens.”
Willian takes centre stage as Chelsea turn on style to destroy Hull
Quite what the scouts dispatched from Barcelona to this corner of south-west London, charged with casting their eyes over next week’s opponents, could hope to glean from this mismatch is anyone’s guess.
Chelsea barely broke into a sweat in sweeping aside Hull City to secure their passage into the FA Cup quarter-finals. This was a stroll. Maybe the best the scouting reports might confirm is that the Premier League side will be fresh next week.
The hosts could play out this game with two 17-year-olds and a 20-year-old on debut on the pitch, their progress beyond depleted opponents assured from virtually the first attack of the tie. Willian caught the eye with an effervescent display, conjuring glorious finishes with both feet and striking the outside of a post as the final whistle approached.
It may be that Antonio Conte, serenaded yet again by the home support, opts to leave out the Brazilian on Tuesday with his preference to play Pedro against his former club. The Spaniard was retired at the interval, perhaps offering an insight into the Italian’s thinking. A trickier decision may be whether Álvaro Morata, formerly of Real Madrid and , first choice in a Chelsea team built for the counterattack, starts ahead of Olivier Giroud against the unbeaten leaders of La Liga. The Frenchman was impressive here, albeit against struggling Championship opposition, and played a part in the hosts’ first three goals before improvising the finish at the near post for the fourth after Emerson Palmieri, another debutant, had barged his way through David Meyler to the byline.
Giroud offers an unlikely blend of muscle and subtlety in a front line that, at times of late, has lacked punch.
“It is a relief to have scored but I’ll take a lot of pleasure from what we did on the pitch,” said the forward. “Everything is going in the right direction.”
Morata, in contrast, was peripheral in his latest cameo off the bench, his chances of making a proper impact blunted by the fact this tie had long since been claimed. He remains understandably rusty after his month-long absence with a back injury. “To have a lot of doubt before Barcelona is important,” said Conte, who will have Marcos Alonso fit to return against the Catalans. “I will go home with many doubts in my mind about which is the best starting XI against Barcelona. Playing against Barcelona is a great challenge for us but also the type of game which must give us great enthusiasm.
We must be excited to play against one of the best teams in the world. It won’t be easy, for sure.”
It will be far trickier than Hull. This, in truth, was an occasion devoid of the drama so craved by the FA Cup with any chance of an upset probably wrecked by the reality the visitors had been wounded by injury, suspension and the ineligibility of three players – Ola Aina, Fikayo Tomori and Michael Hector – who are on loan from the hosts. Nigel Adkins’ side are labouring at 21st in the Championship, a point above the cut-off, with Michael Dawson’s return from groin trouble offset by Jarrob Bowen’s untimely absence with a hamstring injury. If this was the best selection Adkins could put out, they still desperately needed a solid start. Instead they trailed after 106 seconds and were confronting humiliation by the break. Their only positive was emerging unscathed through the damage limitation operation of the second half.
They had never really stood a chance from the moment they trailed, such was the gulf between the sides. Hull’s players had quaked in their boots whenever the Premier League champions poured forward in those opening exchanges, with Willian and Pedro dazzling, Cesc Fàbregas offered time to spray passes gloriously from that quarter-back brief, and Giroud’s every contribution unsettling Hull’s panicked players. The imbalance between the teams was evident from the moment Kevin Stewart turned into trouble inside the second minute to be crowded out and dispossessed by Giroud. Willian duly collected the loose ball and curled a sumptuous shot into the top corner.
All the tricks and flicks seemed to pay off thereafter, with Stewart’s display disintegrating and Meyler, a makeshift right-back, ruthlessly exploited whenever Chelsea flew down that flank. It had been Fàbregas’ lofted pass which had split Dawson and Meyler for Pedro, darting in between, to collect and convert with his left foot. Within minutes Stewart had again been outmuscled by Giroud and, with Dawson diving in desperately, Willian wriggled free to curl away a fine shot which kissed the far post and flew in. David Marshall had been slow to react at that attempt but, in truth, he already looked shellshocked. It was to his credit that he brought off saves late on to deny Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta a fifth.
By then Hull had fluffed their chance at a consolation, Fàbregas’ trip on Harry Wilson having earned the visitors a penalty. True to wretched form, Meyler seemed distracted by the referee’s request to re-spot the ball and Willian’s mischievous muttering in his ear and his shot was pushed away by Willy Caballero. That rather summed up the entire chastening occasion. “No magic, I’m afraid,” said Adkins in his disappointment.
Chelsea 4-0 Hull: Olivier Giroud nets first Blues goal as Willian brace leads Antonio Conte's side into FA Cup quarter-finals with easy win at Stamford Bridge
By Ian Ladyman
It's amazing what the prospect of a game against Barcelona can do for a team.
Admittedly this was a match against what was largely Hull City reserves, a side from the Championship so far out of their depth they may well have arrived clutching buoyancy aids.
Nevertheless, the nervous, anxious Chelsea of recent days and weeks was not visible here. This was different.
Hull were dismantled in a first half that was so complete from a Chelsea point of view that they could have scored double the four goals that they did. That they didn’t score any more in the second period was partly because of an inevitable drop off in tempo and an improved performance from Hull goalkeeper David Marshall.
In midfield the Brazilian Willian and Cesc Fabregas were full of life and artistry. They could not have expressed their interest in Champions League selection next Tuesday any more clearly had they written to their manager and asked for a game.
Meanwhile, there on the touchline – warming up eagerly – was Alvaro Morata, the striker who coach Antonio Conte said recently may miss the rest of the season with injury. With twenty minutes to go, the Spaniard was on. He didn’t do terribly much but at least he was there and the chances are that he will start against Barcelona.
So, with a much greater challenge ahead next week, this was a good night for Chelsea and a desperate one for Nigel Adkins and Hull.
The team from East Riding of Yorkshire did not even fill their modest away allocation and that spoke volumes. With Adkins missing his three Chelsea loan defenders and with other players operating out of position, Hull clearly didn’t feel they could get anything here and neither did their supporters.
This was, it must be said, a peculiar pick for television and won’t do much to advance the argument for further Friday night football.
Nor did this do much to persuade us that the gap between the Premier League and the Championship is doing anything but getting wider. Despite the absence of a host of first team players, Chelsea were technically better by an enormous margin and also physically stronger.
Hull did pull themselves together in the second half and Adkins, an experienced and proud manager, will be grateful for that. At one stage, he must have feared humiliation. Hull even won a penalty but it was typical of their night that they subsequently missed it.
Throughout the night Willian was Hull’s chief tormentor. The South American was superb from the get-go and was still annoying the hell out of the opposition late in the piece when he was denied a hat-trick by the thickness of a post.
He didn’t play in the recent 3-0 win against West Brom but this was a pretty convincing case for future inclusion. It can be a challenge to keep your levels high in a game as straight forward as this but Willian looked as though he had a point to prove. If he did, he made it and then underlined it.
Willian scored in the second minute and that set the tone for himself and for his team. The move began with a Hull mistake and sadly that established a pattern – an ugly one – for the visiting team too.
Midfielder Kevin Stewart it was who lost the ball in a bad area and when Willian took possession, he eased forwards, shifted the ball calmly on to his left foot and curled a lovely shot around Marshall’s left hand and in to the top corner from the edge of the penalty area.
It was a sumptuous moment and Hull didn’t recover until it was too late. Chelsea swamped them territorially in the first half and Willian and Fabregas seemed to pick passes through and over the Hull back four at will.
For a while Chelsea couldn’t score a second goal but this didn’t mean Hull were still in it. They weren’t. The flow of the game was always one way and just because Olivier Giroud and Pedro couldn’t attach adequate finishes to some exquisite supply didn’t indicate that Hull were going to find a way back.
Eventually further goals did arrive and they came in a flurry in the run up to half-time.
Fabregas played Pedro clear with a sumptuous first time ball over the top in the 26th minute and the Chelsea forward controlled it equally well to drive it low past Marshall.
Then Stewart gave the ball away again and watched in horror as Willian beat Marshall with a low shot from 20 yards. For some reason the Hull goalkeeper chose not to dive and it looked on replay as though he thought the shot was going wide. It wasn’t.
Three minutes before the break, Marshall was beaten again as Hull’s world began to truly collapse. Chelsea debutant Emerson did well to find space down the left and when he crossed low, Giroud steered the ball expertly in at the near post with his left foot.
The French centre forward will be relieved to have scored his first Chelsea goal. At times he didn’t quite look to be on the same wave length as some of his team-mates.
Hull’s second half was better and it was a pity for them that David Meyler couldn’t beat Willy Caballero from the penalty spot after Fabregas hacked down Harry Wilson. Chelsea’s reserve goalkeeper saved well to his right and after that both teams traded chances.
But if that hinted at some kind of equality in the second half, the impression was wholly false.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Caballero 7; Rudiger 6.5, Ampadu 7.5, Cahill 7; Zappacosta 6.5, Fabregas 8 (Scott 62mins, 6.5), Drinkwater 6.5, Emerson 7; Willian 8.5, Giroud 7.5 (Morata 70, 6.5), Pedro 7 (Hudson-Odoi 46, 7).
Subs not used: Eduardo, T.Chalobah, Sterling, Moses.
Goal: Willian 2, 32, Pedro 27, Giroud 42.
Manager: Antonio Conte 7.
Hull City (4-3-3): Marshall 6; Meyler 5, Dawson 5, MacDonald 5, Clark 5.5; Evandro 4.5, Stewart 5, Irvine 5.5 (Batty 88); Wilson 6 (Toral 55, 6), Dicko 5.5 (Campbell 72, 5.5), Diomande 5.
Subs not used: McGregor, Grosicki, Keane, Clackstone.
Booked: Stewart, Irvine
Manager: Nigel Adkins 6.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Eden Hazard and Victor Moses relieve Chelsea pressure in West Brom win
Dominic Fifield at Stamford Bridge
It was only when the third goal bulged West Brom’s net as this contest drifted into its final quarter, with Eden Hazard punching the air in celebration, that Chelsea could truly relax and bask in a restorative victory.
The Belgian had darted across the edge of the area away from a floundering Jonny Evans before ripping a shot inside Ben Foster’s near post. It was the kind of emphatic finish to breathe belief back into the ranks of the doubters.
Hazard would suggest post-match that Thierry Henry’s input with the Belgium national squad has encouraged that kind of snapshot, fired off before Foster could adjust his feet in anticipation of it. In truth neither centre-half nor goalkeeper could match Hazard’s speed of thought or mastery of execution and that was what in effect set the champions apart. The visitors competed ruggedly enough, recovering from the loss of Daniel Sturridge inside the opening few minutes to test local nerves, but were unpicked and undone by those dashes of quality. Their predicament is troubling. Chelsea, in contrast, are fourth, three points off second.
How they needed an occasion like this, when luck was with them and ruthlessness restored to their approach. Those desperate displays and hefty defeats by Bournemouth and Watford shocked this squad to its core. Had Jay Rodriguez, early on, not snatched at his shot in front of goal, dragging the effort wide after Victor Moses nervously headed a loose ball into his path, then all those anxieties might have flooded back. The same might have applied had Salomón Rondón’s booming header not flown wide or, when Chelsea’s lead was still narrow, had Thibaut Courtois not instinctively denied the Venezuelan after he had bullied Andreas Christensen off the ball early in the second half.
Evans, rising at the resulting corner, guided a free header high and wide. Had one of those chances gone in, then Albion, even as a team who have forgotten how to win, might yet have piggybacked on Chelsea’s anxieties to prosper. “I know what this place is like; it can turn,” said Alan Pardew.
Yet, with each opportunity missed by the visitors, Chelsea were roused further out of their lethargy with Hazard and Olivier Giroud steadily finding their feet. That partnership already looks promising, for all that the Frenchman ended only his second Premier League start of the season with his head bandaged courtesy of Ahmed Hegazi’s boot and bruised on his calf after Evans’ foul.
It was his subtle touch, holding off the Egyptian centre-half, from Hazard’s fizzed pass that helped squeeze out the lead. The playmaker, such a livewire, darted at pace away from Gareth Barry and planted his shot into the corner with a flourish before any visiting player could react. That rather summed it all up. He was operating on a different plain, thriving on Giroud’s Arsenal-esque touches. “He is a great target man, maybe one of the best in England,” said Hazard. “He is a good point of reference.”
That was missing in those two recent defeats, where Chelsea’s front-line lacked presence and power, and Hazard was forced to scurry from the centre in search of the ball in areas opponents could contain his threat. Here he could revel in that free role confident that first Giroud and then Álvaro Morata, recovered from a back injury to emerge off the bench for the final half-hour after a month-long absence, would lead the line. Pedro’s selfless running, dragging markers out of position, and Cesc Fàbregas’s probing from the centre were just as significant. It was the latter’s prod into the box that Craig Dawson deflected into Victor Moses’ path, with the wing-back duly converting the second.
Each setback had Pardew cursing on the sidelines. Albion must be one of the great mysteries of this season, a squad who, on paper, look to have enough quality to be mid-table but who, instead, have now won once in 25 league games. They are seven points adrift of safety and even five from 19th.
They depart for Barcelona and some warm- weather training on Tuesday, though even now their prospects of revival seem to hinge on the results of a scan on Sturridge’s hamstring. His first sprint towards the corner, inside the opening two minutes, was enough to leave him wincing in pain and signalling for a replacement.
His history of injuries is well known – the strains, pulls and tears have cost him 120 senior games already in his career – but Pardew had been praying his loan arrival from Liverpool would add much needed bite. It is true to their dismal luck that, already, Sturridge has gravitated towards a new treatment room, with his new team anchored to the foot of the table.
Chelsea 3 West Brom 0: Eden Hazard steals the show as Stamford Bridge sings for Antonio Conte
The performance might have again often lacked conviction but the verdict from the Chelsea supporters was still unequivocal. A sequence of consecutive Premier League defeats had been halted and Chelsea are back into the Premier League’s top four ahead of pivotal FA Cup and Champions League fixtures, but this match was still most notable for the booming chant of one single word.
“Antonio,” sung the Chelsea fans in a clear and repeated message to owner Roman Abramovich that they are not ready to give up on their Premier League-winning manager.
“Thanks to the fans - they show me great support,” said Antonio Conte. “They are reading speculation and rumours about me. They understood my passion and will to defend this shirt and badge. I am grateful. It’s very important to feel this atmosphere and that people are appreciating my work here in Chelsea.”
Eden Hazard’s inspired match-winning performance suggested that he shares Stamford Bridge’s emphatic assessment, with the Belgian first linking with Olivier Giroud to put Chelsea ahead before cutting inside to deliver a breathtaking finish at Ben Foster’s near post to seal what is only Conte’s third victory in 2018.
Conte blew kisses to his wife in the stands and, while this was a night that will certainly ease recent pressure, Hazard’s individual contribution should not mask wider flaws. Chelsea’s confidence clearly remains bruised following the concession of seven goals against Bournemouth and then Watford and it was noticeable how West Brom were almost rewarded for the bold decision of manager Alan Pardew to attack the reigning champions.
Loan signing Daniel Sturridge had started as a second striker alongside Salomon Rondon in a 3-5-2 formation but the plan suffered a serious set-back after just three minutes when the England forward landed awkwardly and immediately signalled that his involvement had ended.
Another striker in Jay Rodriguez was introduced and West Brom did still put Chelsea under considerable early pressure. Rodriguez soon had a sight of goal and, despite shooting wide, Cesc Fabregas followed in with a late challenge that resulted in a plausible penalty appeal. Matt Phillips’ volleyed cross was then also headed narrowly wide by Rondon.
An even better chance followed when Victor Moses misjudged a headed clearance back across his own goal and, with Fabregas not tracking back, into Rodriguez’s path. Rodriguez, though, appeared shocked to suddenly find himself in so much space and pulled his finish wide.
Chelsea were very definitely wobbling but still the chants echoing all around Stamford Bridge were for Conte and his team did finally begin to establish their rhythm. First Pedro and then Eden Hazard presented chances for Giroud to score on his full Chelsea debut but, displaying a weakness that had so often frustrated Arsenal, his finishes were erratic.
Giroud’s lack of pace was also occasionally evident as Chelsea upped their tempo but it was not long before he did demonstrate his great quality. Hazard was causing increasing panic in the West Brom defence with his direct running and, after gliding past one challenge, played the ball into Giroud’s feet. The France striker had his back to goal but a glancing assist was perfectly weighted for Hazard simply to continue his run and shoot powerfully beyond Foster with his right foot.
Giroud was also displaying physical bravery and, already wearing a bandage after an earlier head injury, required lengthy treatment to his achilles following Jonny Evans’ tackle from behind. There was sufficient discomfort to raise questions over whether he would re-emerge for the second half but the only change was to West Brom, with Pardew bringing on Oliver Burke to provide further attacking support for Rondon and Rodriguez.
A second sustained period of pressure followed, with Burke sprinting behind Davide Zappacosta down Chelsea’s left and only a wonderful sliding tackle from Cesar Azpilicueta preventing his pass from reaching Rondon on the edge of the six-yard box. Rondon then simply shrugged off Andreas Christensen to force a low save of Thibaut Courtois. From the resulting corner, Evans directed a free header wastefully wide.
A bloodied and bruised Giroud did eventually make way for Alvaro Morata to play his first game for almost a month. He was not directly involved but Chelsea immediately extended their lead, with Moses powering into the penalty area and then passing to Fabregas, whose attempted flick cannoned off Craig Dawson to inadvertently dissect West Brom’s defence. Moses had not stopped running and finished calmly past Foster.
Chelsea were finally comfortable and Hazard duly stepped up with his flash of individual brilliance.
Chelsea 3-0 West Brom: Eden Hazard at the double against lowly Baggies as Antonio Conte's side get Champions League pursuit back on track
By Martin Samuel for the Daily Mail
They sang his name and, each time they did, Antonio Conte acknowledged that support with respectful applause. At the end the emotion poured out, and he put his fingers to his lips and blew kisses.
On nights like this, when Eden Hazard is firing, the love of the common people is audible and the win is comfortable, it is hard to believe a Chelsea manager could ever be on the rocks in the middle of the season.
Yet that is the conundrum of Stamford Bridge. Monday night’s opponents have already seen off two Chelsea managers in the Roman Abramovich era, being the last league opponents for both Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo. Some thought Conte might go the same way if he lost a third straight game for the first time since he was manager at Atalanta in 2009.
Yet this West Brom are a very different proposition — rooted to the bottom of the Premier League and losing ground week by week. Chelsea did not have it all their own way but their goals were well taken, their team shape was recognisable after the hodgepodge at Watford and their players put a shift in, which Conte desperately needed. A week ago, the performance brought back memories of that last Jose Mourinho season. This was the bounce Mourinho couldn’t get back then.
How different Chelsea’s short-term prospects look this morning, By the end of this week, they should be in the FA Cup quarter-finals — Hull, at home on Friday, are their fifth-round opponents — and anticipating the Champions League visit of Barcelona. This victory also returned them to the top four, at the expense of Tottenham. Normal service has resumed, for now at least.
Hazard has returned, too. West Brom are his favourite opposition and his two goals here took his league tally against them to seven, his best haul against any club. Both were perfectly taken but the second drew the biggest roar. Hazard collected the ball on the right corner of the penalty area, turned, came inside, got it on his favoured left foot and hit a low near-post shot of such ferocity and precision that goalkeeper Ben Foster might as well have bought a ticket for all the influence he could have on it.
By then, however, the game was pretty much over. Chelsea’s second had brought proceedings to a halt, punishing West Brom for a squandered chance to equalise shortly before. Salomon Rondon spurned this opportunity having out-muscled Andreas Christensen, and West Brom were made to pay. Instead of drawing level, they soon went a dispiriting two goals down.
Victor Moses surged into the box from the right and laid the ball to Cesc Fabregas, who attempted its return with an inventive back-heel flick. Instead of immediately finding its intended target, the ball took a ricochet off defender Craig Dawson but reached Moses anyway. His shot left Foster no chance and the result moved beyond doubt.
It was a strange atmosphere at Stamford Bridge to begin with: a little flat, a tad apprehensive. Not the sort of mood one would traditionally associate with the champions, or even a team in contention for a top-four place — certainly not when playing the bottom club.
Yet Chelsea’s form feeds trepidation and so it proved. West Brom actually started with more confidence. There were six minutes gone when Matt Phillips hit an excellent cross from the right, which Rondon should at least have got on target. Just five minutes later, a mistake by Moses inadvertently set up West Brom substitute Jay Rodriguez. He was one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois but panicked and snatched at his shot from distance, putting a weak effort well wide.
That West Brom had a substitute on so early was symptomatic of the type of luck that seems to hamper the doomed. Daniel Sturridge was brought in from Liverpool last month to transform West Brom’s season. An England striker, he was the type of good break every club down the bottom hopes to get. But there is a reason he is surplus to Jurgen Klopp’s requirements at Liverpool, and it surfaced here.
Just three minutes in he challenged Cesar Azpilicueta for a loose ball. Sturridge got a touch but tumbled over. It would be his only touch of the game. He went down, signalled to the bench that damage had occurred and his night was done.
If it is a longer-term knock the toll on West Brom is incalculable. They are running out of games now. They have won a single game in 25, but probably need at least five wins, maybe six, in their final 11 games to stay up. The odds are very much against them.
The Rodriguez scare spurred Chelsea into action. It made a difference having a target man in Oliver Giroud, and no doubt that was Azpilicueta’s intention when he whipped in a cross after 17 minutes. Giroud couldn’t get there but Davide Zappacosta did, stealing in at the back post but unable to beat Foster.
If there was a criticism of Giroud at Arsenal — and let’s face it, there was — it was that he needed too many chances to score a goal. Certainly, he should have got his first for Chelsea after 20 minutes when a low, square cross of great cunning from Hazard picked him out perfectly. He had time, his position was perfect but he shot straight at Foster. Four minutes later, however, he made up for it.
This was Hazard’s goal, and Hazard’s lovely invention that undid West Brom, but Giroud did his bit. Hazard received the ball outside the area and charged, laying it off to Giroud, who returned the perfect wall pass. Hazard, momentum up, gauged the target area and let fly. Foster had no chance. Relief inside the stadium was palpable.
Still, if Giroud’s play was not always convincing — he was substituted after 60 minutes having given a series of passes away — his bravery was. He took an accidental kick in the head — he was on the floor at the time, there was no malice — from Ahmed Hegazi just before half-time. Plenty of claret, plenty of bandages.
That didn’t stop him from attempting a header from a Pedro cross soon after, or from soldiering on despite a rather more vindictive kicking from Jonny Evans shortly before half-time. He was what Chelsea have needed. So was this.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Courtois 7; Azpilicueta 7, Christensen 6.5 (Cahill 74), Rudiger 7; Moses 6.5, Kante 7, Fabregas 7, Zappacosta 6.5; Pedro 7 (Willian 80), Giroud 7 (Morata 61 6.5), Hazard 9.
Subs: Caballero, Ampadu, Emerson, Drinkwater.
Goals: Hazard 25, 71; Moses 63
West Brom (3-5-2): Foster 5; Dawson 6, Hegazi 6.5, Evans 6.5; Phillips 6, Brunt 5 (Burke 46, 6), Barry 6.5 (Yacob 80), Krychowiak 5.5, Gibbs 6.5; Sturridge 4 (Rodriguez 4, 6), Rondon 5.
Subs: Myhill, Nyom, Yacob, McClean, McAuley. Booked: Evans, Gibbs.
Referee: Lee Mason - 6
Att: 41, 071
Watford 4 Chelsea 1: Antonio Conte on the brink after ten-man Blues capitulate at Vicarage Road
Antonio Conte asked for a vote of confidence. Instead he got the kind of crushing defeat that can hasten the sack. The Chelsea head coach is under severe pressure now, fighting for his job, if he wants to keep it beyond this season, and make no mistake about that.
Will Conte still be in charge when Chelsea host West Bromwich Albion next Monday? Surely he will but this is Chelsea. Nothing can be assumed. This is a club that will not risk failure and are not afraid of change. They will not risk finishing outside the top four. And they are also less likely to risk it for a manager who has pushed them and tested their patience.
Defeats happen. But it is the manner of the defeat that counts. And this was shocking in its capitulation with Conte later complaining that his team played with fear, without personality, without confidence. That sounded like resigned talk. It was the kind of talk that Roman Abramovich, who is in London, but who was not at this game, will not want to hear. And neither, history has told us, is he afraid to act; especially at this crucial point of the campaign.
Chelsea have won only two of their last 10 games - and knocked Norwich City out of the FA Cup on penalties. With this defeat they have conceded seven goals in their last two Premier League matches: three against Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge and now four, here, against a rampant Watford who were re-energised under their new head coach Javi Gracia.
Watford thoroughly deserved to win; a win that takes them six points clear of the relegation zone and halted the alarming run of results that led to the sacking of Marco Silva as head coach. This was Gracia’s first home game in charge and his January signing, fellow Spaniard Gerard Deulofeu, was outstanding in a rampant performance which Chelsea simply could not cope with.
Deulofeu earned a penalty, facing accusations that he dived, and scored an outstanding goal – one of three that Watford claimed late in the game and after another fine strike from Eden Hazard had drawn Chelsea level. Briefly level. For after their goal, Chelsea crumbled alarmingly as Watford hit back. And hit back hard with three outstanding goals in seven extraordinary minutes.
Chelsea had to play for more than an hour with 10-men after Tiemoue Bakayoko was dismissed following such a woefully hapless display that it led to cruel claims they would fare better with a man fewer.
Bakayoko lost the ball seven times in the opening 30 minutes, leading to three chances for Watford and was yellow carded for a clumsy challenge on Etienne Capoue after another piece of poor control. Just five minutes later referee Mike Dean cautioned Bakayoko again, after he again failed to control the ball, trodding on Richarlison. It seemed a harsh decision and Bakayoko was stunned while his departure was greeted with angry rebukes from the travelling Chelsea fans.
Those fans rallied behind Conte, and maybe that will count in his favour, maybe that will buy him more time but that looming last-16 Champions League tie against Barcelona now appears increasingly crucial. And it was a Barcelona player, Deulofeu, on loan until the end of the season who undid Chelsea and Conte. They could not cope with his pace, or that or Richarlison, who bizarrely burst into tears after being substituted, while their defence was physically dominated by a resurgent Troy Deeney.
It was Deeney who scored the opening goal, driving the ball home from the penalty spot, which sparked a dubious celebration from him that may lead to questions being asked by the Football Association. Not smart from a man who has served lengthy bans this season. The penalty came as Deulofeu ran onto a through ball from Daryl Janmaat with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois hurtling from goal. There was contact, but did Deulofeu make the most of it? Chelsea protested. Dean stood firm.
With Bakayoko’s departure Conte, who rested Marcos Alonso and later suggested he got his team selection wrong, as he also started without a striker before bringing on new signing Olivier Giroud, sacrificed the fit-again Willian. On came Cesc Fabregas to provide some ballast but it was not until late on when Hazard sparked into life that Chelsea threatened. Firstly he dribbled into the area, cutting the ball back to Fabregas, who shot weakly. Then Hazard stole possession, cut inside onto his right foot and bent a superb 25-yard shot around goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis and into the net.
Would that be the late salvation? The unlikely comeback from the 10-men? Could they even go on and win it? Instead the exact opposite happened. Watford were stung into action and hit back. Hard. Very hard. Firstly Janmaat, of all people, restored the lead with a quite brilliant goal as he ran in from the right, evading two challenges, played a one-two with substitute Roberto Pereyra, evaded two more half-hearted challenges and side-footed his shot back across Courtois.
It was a stunning strike and then, remarkably, there was another with Deulofeu sprinting from his own half and as David Luiz – making his first Premier League start since October – and Gary Cahill backed off he accepted the invitation to carry on and stroked the ball low into the corner of the goal.
That sealed it. But there was still more to come with another lovely strike as Pereyra running onto Abdoulaye Doucoure’s pass before simply hammering a powerful cross-shot that flew past a shell-shocked Courtois.
It meant Chelsea have now lost their last seven league games when they have been trailing at half-time. It also secured Watford’s biggest-ever Premier League win and one of Chelsea’s biggest and most humiliating defeats in the Abramovich era. For Conte the heat is on.
Gerard Deulofeu inspires Watford to runaway win against 10-man Chelsea
Dominic Fifield at Vicarage Road
Antonio Conte had shivered through much of this contest, hands planted deep in the pockets of his puffa jacket and that helpless, rather haunted look in his eyes that tends to mark out Chelsea managers whose time is up. The Italian was emotionless as Eden Hazard belted his team improbably level eight minutes from the end. He was just as impassive while Watford ran riot in what little time remained. It was as if he had seen it all coming and, judging by the fog of discord that has enveloped the club for too long this season, maybe he had.
The champions can point to the reality that they remain in the top four, with FA Cup and Champions League campaigns to be resumed, but a third chaotic defeat in four games has reinforced the sense that this season is veering from them. Everything seems to have taken its toll, from disagreements between head coach and hierarchy over recruitment, to a cluttered schedule on a squad clearly not built to compete on four fronts. Now results have turned. Conte could emerge through his post-match gloom insisting his “conscience is clear” in terms of the effort he is putting in but Roman Abramovich tends to react when he sees his team’s prospects of finishing in the top four on the wane.
Much more of this and the divorce anticipated for the summer would surely be brought forward. This, like the defeat by Bournemouth last week, was a drubbing, a thrashing that was telegraphed in the opening half-hour while the visitors were still blessed with a full complement and confirmed when Watford seized their chances late on.
Chelsea had done well to stay in the contest as long as they did but they always lacked cohesion. Pumping long balls towards Hazard was never likely to yield reward. More tellingly, the ease with which Daryl Janmaat and Gerard Deulofeu, the game’s outstanding performer, scythed through the visitors’ frazzled backline in those madcap last six minutes was enough to drain what little colour remained in Conte’s cheeks. By the time Roberto Pereyra was squeezing out enough space in stoppage time to belt across Thibaut Courtois and into the far corner, Chelsea were broken.
The teams who have overwhelmed them in the past week had both started against Chelsea looking at the foot of the table. Conte’s charges can now feel Tottenham on their shoulder and Arsenal not far behind. In so many ways their struggles here were personified by Tiémoué Bakayoko’s nightmare of a game. Focus will be drawn to the two bookings the midfielder picked up for clumsy fouls on Étienne Capoue and Richarlison that had him dismissed on the half-hour – the second was arguably rather harsh – but, after his red, it was tempting to wonder which team benefited more from his departure. His 28 touches had been littered with errors, from a weak header picked up by Abdoulaye Doucouré, a former team-mate at Rennes, to misplaced and sloppy passes presented to Deulofeu, Capoue and Richarlison. All four errors led directly to shots at goal.
The Frenchman had trudged down the tunnel bravely offering the away support at the far end a clap of appreciation – the chorus bellowed back was far from friendly – but he would, at present, appear to typify the fear that is gripping this team. Watford, excellent even prior to the dismissal, would eventually capitalise. They had their own motivation in Javi Gracia’s first home game in charge and a team who had won once in their 12 previous league games were outstanding. Janmaat’s pass cut Chelsea open, the ball eased beyond Gary Cahill for Deulofeu to chase. Courtois slid out and failed to reach the ball with the Spaniard, seeking his own contact, sprawling to the turf. There were few Chelsea protests as Troy Deeney converted the penalty, even if his one-fingered celebration may bring sanction.
Thereafter, profligacy rather spared the visitors until Hazard, whipping in a glorious equaliser that dipped under Orestis Karnezis’s outstretched left hand, made it level. Briefly, tantalisingly, Chelsea dared to consider inducing another late Watford implosion but it would be the champions who unravelled. Janmaat, Deulofeu and the substitute Pereyra would each glide into space to drive home their advantage while the majority inside the arena pinched themselves in the giddiness of victory. “It’s difficult to explain how I feel at this moment,” said Gracia. “We needed the three points badly but for motivation and to believe in our possibilities, in our work, today was very important.”
His team should sprint back into mid-table safety on the back of this riotous success. The ramifications for Chelsea could be just as far-reaching. West Brom are at Stamford Bridge next Monday and in any other circumstances a visit from the division’s bottom club would feel like an opportunity. Yet, while the fear still grips, it is the champions who look there for the taking.
Watford 4-1 Chelsea: Roberto Pereyra, Gerard Deulofeu and Daryl Janmaat net dramatic late goals to pile misery on Antonio Conte after Eden Hazard's thunderbolt had cancelled out Troy Deeney's opener
By Matt Barlow for the Daily Mail
When things start to unravel at Chelsea they often do so at an alarming rate and an air of impending doom clung to Antonio Conte as Watford kept scoring.
Any old defeat would have been bad enough for manager Conte on the back of last week’s 3-0 humbling at home to Bournemouth.
But this was a wretched result, backed by another feeble performance from the Premier League champions.
They have won only two of the last 10 games in all competitions and their status in the top four has become precarious, a pressure point which never fails to escape owner Roman Abramovich.
Conte’s team were devoid of his trademark intensity at Vicarage Road even before Tiemoue Bakayoko was sent off, leaving them to toil with 10 men for more than an hour.
They were on their knees by the time Roberto Pereyra lashed the fourth past Thibaut Courtois in the first minute of added time.
Bakayoko did not help. He was awful for half-an-hour and then collected two yellow cards inside five first-half minutes.
Chelsea supporters turned on him when he had the audacity to turn to them and applaud as he departed.
They gave him short shrift in return, waving goodbye among other hand gestures.
Watford soon took advantage of the extra man and went ahead with a penalty converted by Troy Deeney.
Only when Olivier Giroud was thrown on for his debut and Chelsea adopted a more direct and aerial approach did they finally offer any attacking threat.
Eighty minutes had gone by before they mustered a shot on target, a low drive by Cesc Fabregas from the edge of the penalty box which was saved by Orestis Karnezis.
Then, out of nowhere, Eden Hazard offered hope.
Hazard, deployed at centre-forward in the absence of Alvaro Morata and with Giroud not considered ready for 90 minutes, had been quiet but he summoned a brilliant curling shot to level the game.
Almost immediately, however, Chelsea collapsed at the back.
Daryl Janmaat sailed through the blue shirts to restore Watford’s lead, trading passes with substitute Pereyra before beating Courtois with a low shot arrowed into the corner.
Gerard Deulofeu, outstanding on his second start since his move from Barcelona, added a delicious third and Pereyra completed the rout.
For Javi Gracia it was a fabulous way to mark his first home game as Watford manager, with the club’s biggest win in the Premier League.
Gracia was afforded a pre-match ripple of applause by the Vicarage Road crowd who know better than to get too carried away.
Their managers do not tend to hang around for long. The same could be said for the visitors.
Conte is under pressure, clearly dissatisfied with the squad at his disposal and the business performed in another transfer window and seemingly spoiling for a fight with the Chelsea board.
At the same time, injuries are stacking up.
Andreas Christensen and Ross Barkley are the latest casualties, both absent with hamstring problems, and Marcos Alonso was given the opportunity to rest.
Pedro hobbled off in the second half. Morata is still out with a bad back.
It meant right-back Davide Zappacosta was on the left and David Luiz started his first Premier League game since October.
Chelsea suffered without the pace of Christensen against Bournemouth last week and they were again missing their old solidity.
Deulofeu and Richarlison caused problems with their positive running and Bakayoko started the game in careless fashion, not for the first time since his arrival from Monaco.
More than once he conceded possession in his own half of the pitch, although the second yellow card was certainly unfortunate.
He did not win the ball from Richarlison in midfield and his tackling technique made it look like bit of a stamp but he did not catch the Brazilian striker.
Richarlison rolled around clutching his ankle and Mike Dean produced a red card.
It was a dreadful 30 minutes from Bakayoko, emblematic of a dreadful first six months in London, but to send him off was harsh and it left his team in trouble.
To get Cesc Fabregas into midfield, Conte replaced Willian, who had been the only one of his team to summon anything like an effort at goal until that point.
Chelsea fans jeered the decision and sang Willian’s song and things got worse for Conte as he fumed on the touchline.
There was a lecture from referee Dean as he contested another decision and then the penalty conceded before half time.
Janmaat teased a long pass into the channel on the right and Deulofeu was far too quick for Courtois who made the decision to race out of his goal.
Deulofeu was there first, touched the ball away and was wiped out by the momentum of the goalkeeper’s slide.
This time, there was no dispute and Deeney stepped forward to give Watford the lead, before wheeling away to celebrate with a middle-finger salute towards Chelsea fans which could land him in trouble with the FA.
Victor Moses launched a threatening counter-attack in stoppage-time at the end of the first half which culminated in Pedro firing over.
Otherwise, the champions created very little and found it difficult after the interval.
Moses and Marvin Zeegelaar clashed heads as they contested a Zappacosta cross but Chelsea rarely made it near to the Watford goal until Fabregas tested Karnezis with 10 minutes to go.
Hazard’s moment of magic gave them hope of a point but the hope killed them.
Within two minutes they were trailing again and the champions were relieved when the final whistle put them out of their misery.
Karnezis 6; Mariappa 6, Prodl 6.5, Holebas 6; Janmaat 6.5, Doucoure 7, Capoue 6.5, Zeegelaar 6; Deulofeu 8, Deeney 7, Richarlison 7.5 (Pereyra, 7.5)
Subs not used: Bachmann, Carrillo, Gray, Lukebakio; Mukena, Ndong, Pereyra
Goals: Deeney 42, Janmaat 84, Deulofeu 88, Pereyra 90
Yellow cards: Richarlison 45, Prodl 50
Manager: Javi Gracia 7
Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 5, Luiz 5, Cahill 5; Moses 6, Kante 6, Bakayoko 3, Zappacosta 5; Willian 6 (Fabregas 35, 6), Hazard 5.5, Pedro 5 (Giroud 64, 6)
Subs not used: Caballero, Drinkwater, Hudson-Odoi, Emerson, Rudiger
Goals: Hazard 82
Yellow cards: Luiz 58 Fabregas 62
Red cards: Bakayoko 30
Manager: Antonio Conte 6
Ref: Mike Dean