Hazard, Morata mask Chelsea issues as Blues deepen Toon gloom
LONDON -- Three thoughts on Chelsea 3-1 Newcastle in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon.
1. Chelsea win, but Conte has concerns
Chelsea may have beaten Newcastle 3-1 on Saturday, but they still have issues.
Their squad is not big enough to cope with the rigours of a Premier League and Champions League campaign. Antonio Conte is continually reported to be unsettled. There has been still more upheaval in the corridors of power. But they retain that most crucial of attributes: the competitive advantage they've enjoyed for most of the Roman Abramovich era. They don't give up.
Last weekend, they kept fighting for a 1-1 draw when defeat at Liverpool seemed inevitable. They followed up their crushing 3-0 defeat at Roma with a 1-0 win over Manchester United. They responded to opening day disaster at home to Burnley by beating Tottenham at Wembley. And here, stunned by an early Newcastle goal, they responded in style.
This could easily have been one of those slippery games that inexplicably falls through the fingers. Chelsea were uncertain from the start, unsettled by Newcastle's robust approach. They conceded early when the visitors drove into the penalty area: Jacob Murphy's attempt rebuffed by Thibaut Courtois, Dwight Gayle's follow-up swiftly converted. The away supporters were jubilant. After five games without a win, they had an unexpected lead to defend. But it wasn't to last.
Instead of becoming flustered, Chelsea drew breath. And then they redoubled their efforts. Karl Darlow pulled off an extraordinary reaction save to deny Eden Hazard. Chelsea should have had a penalty when Darlow jumped on Alvaro Morata two minutes later. Andreas Christensen bounced a header off the post. And then Hazard stuck, crashing home an equaliser from a narrow angle. After 33 minutes, Chelsea led. Once again, Newcastle won the first ball and lost the second, with Victor Moses blasting a flat cross into the six yard box that was firmly met by Morata.
The second half brought more Chelsea dominance. On the touchline, Conte was now apoplectic with referee Kevin Friend's refusal to award his team a string of penalties. Friend, who had already inadvertently shoved Cesc Fabregas to the floor in the first half, finally relented in the 72nd minute, penalising Matt Ritchie for tripping Moses in the box. Hazard put the result beyond doubt with a delicate Panenka.
That was the signal for the shop to be shut. With one eye on Atletico Madrid's visit next week, Fabregas, Hazard and Christiansen were all duly removed.
What had started as a tense afternoon ended in a stroll, but Conte will be aware there's still plenty of work to do with Chelsea starting this match 11 points off runaway leaders Manchester City.
The gap is eight -- for now.
2. Gloom for Toon
This was never going to be a happy return to Stamford Bridge for Rafa Benitez, who bossed the Blues amid acrimony in 2012-13. For all his protestations that Chelsea fans sabotaged his stay, the depth and breadth of the feeling against him here was best exemplified by the gleeful jeers that greeted his fluffed attempt to clip a ball back into play. For a time, as Newcastle led, you could feel the anxiety in the stadium. But not in the end. Not to him. The fears were misplaced. Chelsea were on another level.
And that's the problem with Newcastle. They are a large Premier League club with a decent Championship squad. Benitez, a manager who is far more adept than any Chelsea fan will ever acknowledge, is doing his best, but the gap in quality here was obvious. Chelsea found it too easy to find space in front of the defence, the sort of space that Huddersfield's midfielders worked so hard to eliminate against Manchester City last week was left vacant by the Magpies, particularly on the left where Fabregas and Moses combined to devastating effect against Ciaran Clark and Ritchie.
Newcastle need upgrades in nearly every position, but as the transfer window approaches they remain in the grip of an unpopular owner who has absolutely no incentive to invest in an asset he's trying to offload. In an ideal world, Benitez would already be pushing transfers over the line. In this world, with just one win in 10 games, there's a serious chance that he and his weak squad will be dragged into a relegation battle.
3. Morata a hit for Conte
European connoisseurs have always wanted to see what Morata could do with an extended run in an accomplished first team. This was his 13th league start of the season. He's never made more than 16 in a league campaign. Perhaps he should have. When he put Chelsea ahead in the first half, it was his ninth Premier League goal, and his fifth with his head.
At half-time, Chelsea paraded their former top goal scorer Bobby Tambling (his 202 goal record beaten by Frank Lampard in 2013) around the pitch. Morata, 25, is unlikely to ever get close to that tally, but this has been a most impressive start to life in London.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.