As You Were
Wednesday 18th October, Stamford Bridge – Chelsea faced off against AS Roma in their third champions league game of the season. At stake: the top spot in Group C. Roma were second on four points, having won and drawn their two games against the other group members, FK Qarabag and Atletico Madrid. Chelsea topped the group on six points, from two wins against the same opposition.
Roma were coming off a pretty good run of form – they’d won four of their last five games in all competitions, although like Chelsea they had lost their most recent league game at home, a 1 – 0 reverse to Serie A leaders Napoli. Their London hosts though, had been experiencing slightly more challenging times. Chelsea were the EPL Champions, but they had only won one of their last four league games. It wasn’t exactly a crisis (yet), but their hopes of retaining their title were fading with every game.
Victor Moses, N’golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater were unavailable for selection through injury. Chelsea manager Antonio Conte picked Davide Zappacosta and David Luiz in place Moses and Kante in the starting line-up. Alvaro Morata had recovered quicker than expected from a muscular injury and started tonight’s game. Willian, Pedro and Michy Batshuayi were going through a rough patch of form and were on the bench.
Roma had Konstantinos Manolas, Patrik Schick, Emerson and backup striker Gregoire Defrel on their injury list. Former Manchester City players Edin Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolarov were available though and started for them. Dzeko in particular was on a fantastic scoring run, and Chelsea’s defence would be justifiably wary of him tonight.
Line-Ups & Ratings
Courtois 6, Alonso 6.5, Azpilicueta 5.5, Christensen 5.5, Cahill 6, Zappacosta 6.5 (Rudiger 7), Luiz 8 (Pedro 7), Fabregas 6, Bakayoko 7, Hazard 8.5 (Willian 5.5), Morata 6.5
Subs Caballero, Rudiger, Kenedy, Scott, Willian, Pedro, Batshuayi
Becker 6, Fazio 6, Kolarov 8, Peres 6, Jesus 6.5, Gonalons 6, Nainggolan 6.5, Strootman 7 (Florenzi NR), Gerson 6 (Pellegrini 5.5), Perotti 7.5 (El Shaarawy NR), Dzeko 8.5
Subs Skorupski, Under, De Rossi, Moreno, Florenzi, Pellegrini, El Shaarawy
One key characteristic under Antonio Conte, has been Chelsea’s consistency in showing positive reactions to bad results. Although they were a little bit constrained by fatigue and injury, it looked as if they just might be able to do that again today. The manager deployed them in a conventional 3-5-2, with Luiz, Fabregas and Bakayoko in the center, and Hazard and Morata in a flat front two. Roma lined up in a more attacking 4-3-3 with the obvious intent to take the game to the home side.
From the beginning Chelsea sat back absorbing pressure from Roma, looking for opportunities on the fast break. The first chance came in the fifth minute, when Alonso stole possession off Peres on left wing. The ball made its way up to Hazard, who fed Morata with the perfect pass – but somehow the Spanish striker, under no pressure, contrived to shoot straight at Becker. It really should have been the first goal. Shortly afterwards, Roma’s Perotti made a mazy, dribbling run from midfield all the way to the edge of the box, but his shot didn’t match the quality of the approach play, and it went over the bar.
Shouldn’t This Guy Be In Midfield All The Time?
David Luiz played less than an hour this game, but he was imperious in midfield. He might spend more time playing center back, but he’s the best box-to-box midfielder Chelsea have right now, and probably their top defensive midfielder after N’golo Kante. And he showed great intelligence, decision-making and finishing skill for the opening goal of the game.
Hazard got the ball off Belgium teammate Nainggolan on the left wing, then threaded it through to Bakayoko, who made a long back pass to the advancing David Luiz. Luiz was a bit too far out for a shot at that point, so he attempted a pass to Morata but the ball was knocked back to him off a Roma defender. This time he was closer and the distance was right – he hit a first time curling shot from outside the D, beyond Becker’s grasp for 1 – 0.
Chelsea had another great chance twenty minutes in – Fabregas charged down a long ball on the right wing, and Hazard and Morata flew up the pitch on the counter. Hazard had the option to pass to Morata on his right for the final ball, but he chose to try a shot himself. Unfortunately, his finish went just wide of the post. Ten minutes later Perotti tried a half-chance from distance, but Courtois easily saved the shot. And a few seconds after that Nainggolan almost equalized from the right channel, but Courtois made a fine reaction save to deny him.
Then on 36 minutes Hazard stole the ball off Peres in his own half, and both he and Morata zoomed upfield again. This time Hazard chose to pass left to Morata, who then cut inside and tried a shot, but the ball deflected off Fazio back to Hazard at the opposite corner of the six-yard box. Hazard made no mistake this time – he hit it on the half-volley, inside the near post for the second goal.
Skill + Hard Work Makes Luck
Chelsea appeared to be trundling off happily to a clean sheet and a comfortable lead at half time, when AS Roma gave them a wake-up call. Kolarov had possession wide left, and he poked the ball between Zappacosta and Azpilicueta into the penalty box, and chased in after it.
For some reason Zappacosta didn’t seem to think it his responsibility to help Azpilicueta shut down his counterpart full back, and Kolarov had the freedom to take a wicked shot from the left. The shot deflected off Christensen, and looped over Courtois into the opposite corner. Frankly there was nothing the keeper could do about it. 2 – 1.
Conte’s strategy had been working, to that point. Yes, Roma had scored, but it was more or less a fluky own goal, Courtois could probably have saved it without the deflection. But on 57 minutes Chelsea made a substitution that probably changed the direction of the whole game.
Luiz appeared to have been struggling with a knock in the first half, and the manager took him off to rest him. Seeing how effective he’d been at protecting the back three from an in-form Dzeko, and also linking defence to attack, you’d think it would have been a like-for-like swap. Maybe Rudiger to join the defence and push Christensen up in Luiz’s place.
For whatever reason, Pedro was subbed on instead. It was disastrous for Chelsea’s defence. Seven minutes after Luiz went off, Roma had equalized. Six minutes after that they’d taken the lead, and Chelsea couldn’t stop the bleeding until Rudiger came in on 77 minutes. Edin Dzeko, who’d barely managed a shot on target before Luiz went off, scored both goals.
Roma’s equalizer was a thing of beauty. Federico Fazio had possession in defence for Roma, and saw Chelsea’s back line high up the pitch, with Dzeko lurking in between the center backs. Fazio moved up into the center circle, then lobbed the ball behind the defence for Dzeko, who’d beaten their offside trap. Andreas Christensen was just a step too slow to catch him, and Dzeko hit it on the volley. And all of a sudden, out of nothing whatsoever it was 2 – 2.
Dzeko wasn’t done. Chelsea were flagging, and the visitors could sense their opportunity. Perotti dribbled past Bakayoko on the left wing, and in desperation the defensive midfielder fouled him just outside the corner of the penalty area, as is his wont. Aleksandar Kolarov lofted a free kick to the near post, and neither Azpilicueta nor Morata tracked Dzeko’s run. He nodded the ball past Courtois into the opposite corner. Roma had the lead now, 3 – 2.
Yup, Hazard’s Game
Before this match, Eden Hazard hadn’t scored in the Champions League since 2015. His finishes this game though, were so casual, so off-hand, it looked like he’d been scoring big goals in Europe every week.
Fabregas made a long pass out to Zappacosta wide right. Pedro and Azpilicueta exchanged short passes on the wing, before Pedro spotted Hazard moving back and forth to make space for himself just outside the six yard box. Pedro curled in a pinpoint cross to Hazard, who was unmarked, and he glanced the ball into the bottom corner. It was back to parity at 3 – 3. One point each and “as you were” at the top of Group C.
Credit to the whole Chelsea team, who kept fighting until the end. And despite the defensive issues here and there, huge credit to Antonio Conte and his coaching team. After the relative disarray versus Crystal Palace, this was a pretty major turnaround.
Final Score Chelsea 3 – 3 Roma
Thumbnail image courtesy of: ESPN FC
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