By, Ugo Nwogwugwu
Rafa The Gaffer
Saturday 2nd December, Stamford Bridge – It was matchday 15 of the 2017 season. Ex-Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez and Newcastle United were in London for the first league game of the weekend, against his former club.
November had turned to December, and as Chelsea’s players returned from injury, and Antonio Conte settled on his favoured shape and starting line-up, his team’s defensive inconsistencies were fading into memory.
Newcastle’s recent form was relatively similar to that of the last visitors to Stamford Bridge, Swansea City. They had four losses and one draw from their last five games – but they sat twelfth, much higher up the league table than the eighteenth placed Welsh side.
Chelsea were in third, with four wins and one draw from their last five league games. They had a chance today to draw level on points with second placed Manchester United – if they could take all three points today.
Dwight Gayle started ahead of Joselu in attack for Newcastle. Mohamed Diame and Javier Manquillo replaced Isaac Hayden and DeAndre Yedlin in midfield and right back respectively.
Victor Moses returned to the starting line-up for Chelsea after an injury layoff. Cesar Azpilicueta, Daniel Drinkwater and Eden Hazard started after a rest during the midweek game. Michy Batshuayi was also back on the bench, having recovered from his ankle injury, but David Luiz, Charly Musonda and Kenedy remained unavailable for selection.
Line-Ups & Ratings
Courtois 7.5, Moses 8, Azpilicueta 7.5, Christensen 7.5 (Cahill 7), Rudiger 7, Alonso 6, Kante 8, Fabregas 8 (Bakayoko 6), Drinkwater 7.5, Hazard 9 (Willian 6), Morata 8
Subs Caballero, Cahill, Zappacosta, Bakayoko, Willian, Pedro, Batshuayi
Darlow 7.5, Manquillo 6, Clark 6, Lejeune 6, Mbemba 6, Merino 5 (Yedlin 5), Diame 6 (Shelvey 6), Ritchie 5, Perez 5.5 (Hayden 5), Murphy 6, Gayle 7
Subs Elliott, Yedlin, Hayden, Shelvey, Aarons, Joselu, Mitrovic
Chelsea had probably started their strongest midfield, with Kante, Drinkwater, Fabregas and Hazard in a diamond at the center of a 3-5-2. Most games since they switched to this shape, the diamond, the mobile full backs and the defensive three had been enough to keep their opponents from scoring. But they had tended to make mistakes under a high press, and they got punished by Dwight Gayle after such errors today.
First, Gayle got the better of Christensen to head a long ball back to Murphy in Chelsea’s final third. Kante cut in to steal the ball from Murphy, but his toe poke knocked the ball off Gayle’s elbow into Marcos Alonso’s path. Alonso was running towards his own goal so perhaps did not want to risk clearing the ball too hard – he tried what looked like a back-pass to Courtois, but it lacked pace. Murphy was able to intercept and tried a shot, but Courtois saved. Gayle pounced on the rebound though and passed the ball into the net to give Newcastle the lead – 1 – 0.
The goal woke Chelsea up and they piled forward in numbers. And Newcastle obliged them, sitting back and trying to defend their slim lead. Maybe it wasn’t the best tactic though, because it gave Chelsea the opportunity to build pressure until they finally made their breakthrough.
First, Fabregas found Hazard with a long ball from deep in his half, but Darlow made an almost impossible save from point-blank range to prevent an equalizer.
Then a couple of minutes later Antonio Rudiger repeated the trick to put Morata through on goal, but Darlow craftily clattered the striker from behind before gathering the ball, and for some reason Kevin Friend refused to call an obvious penalty.
But Chelsea were not going to be denied. Azpilicueta made one of his trademark crosses from deep to Morata a few minutes later. Lejeune dived to cut the cross out, but the rebound fell to Hazard, and he smashed a half volley into the pitch, over Darlow and into the net – 1 – 1.
Newcastle looked a bit shell-shocked. They tried to get forward again but this time Chelsea weren’t having it. And on the 32nd minute, Morata scored to silence the traveling fans… and put his team ahead for 2 – 1.
Rudiger played a long ball out right for Victor Moses. Matt Ritchie jumped, but unfortunately headed the pass straight to Moses feet. The Nigerian international dribbled past Ritchie, and drove a cross in low and hard, and Morata got past Chancel Mbemba to head the ball in from two yards out.
Moses had an abysmal substitute appearance midweek against Swansea, and there might have been concerns among the fans about him starting v Newcastle.
Some managers, like ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho might have benched him a little longer, or even permanently. Credit Antonio Conte though. Because Moses (assists for the second and third goals) was the most influential Chelsea player on the pitch outside of the two scorers, Hazard and Morata.
Chelsea went in at halftime 2 – 1 up, and kept that score well into the second half. Hazard made some marvellous opportunities to add to the lead, but he wasn’t able to find the finish his side needed. First, he dribbled in from the left and struck a shot goalward, but it deflected off Ciaran Clark for a corner.
Shortly afterwards Fabregas delivered another long ball for Morata, who nodded it down to Hazard in space. Hazard almost managed to dribble past three defenders, but was tripped in the process. He tried to keep control and finish as he went down, but Darlow saved easily, and the referee ignored calls for a penalty.
Then he exchanged dinked passes with Drinkwater on the counter, to receive possession one-on-one in the penalty box – but the ball bounced slightly ahead of him and his shot went off target.
At the end though, Moses was able hand him his second goal on a silver platter. Fabregas put a through pass in for Moses in the right side of the penalty area. Moses accelerated, and just got to the ball ahead of Matt Ritchie’s sliding tackle. He went down from the lunge, and the referee finally gave a penalty. Hazard stepped up to take it, putting the ball slightly left as the keeper dived right – 3 – 1.
Another routine win for the champions, or at least they made it look routine. It might have been a very different result especially after Gayle’s early goal, but Chelsea proved too strong defensively and in attack on the day.
Their next game is at home to Atletico Madrid, to decide the final standings in Champions League Group C, and after that there’s the small matter of a London derby away to West Ham.
Final Score Chelsea 3 – 1 Newcastle
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Hindustan Times
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