Costa converting chances for Chelsea
Saturday 3 p.m. league games are something of a rarity these days for Chelsea, with the London club's fixtures regularly amended to accommodate live TV schedules. The Blues' season opener against Burnley had been moved to Monday evening, leaving match-going supporters having to take a day off work and facing a long trek home in the small hours of the morning.
A 3-1 victory made the journey worth it, and the discontent from the inconvenient timing was offset today by the warm autumnal sunshine that bathed West London and a return, for one weekend at least, to a traditional kickoff time.
The buzz inside Stamford Bridge was palpable with expectant Blues supporters hoping their side would continue where they left off at Turf Moor, and visiting Leicester City fans optimistic about the Foxes' chances of causing an upset.
"Nigel's the Special One," they chanted in deference to manager Nigel Pearson. As the first-half progressed, home crowd nerves began to jangle as memories of last season's frustrations at Chelsea's shortcomings against the Premier League's supposed lesser teams were rekindled by stubborn, tough-tackling opponents.
A 0-0 score line at the break suggested that Jose Mourinho might have words at halftime. One would expect he did, and the Blues were an altogether different proposition in the second period, eventually easing to a 2-0 win courtesy of goals from Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.
On Monday night, Burnley supporters' chants of "Ginger Mourinho" in praise of Clarets manager Sean Dyche had been silenced. Today, "Nigel's the Special One" was not reprised after Costa's opening goal.
There is only one Mourinho, and prematch talk had concerned itself with the real Special One's man management. There was his decision to make Thibaut Courtois his first choice keeper, and then he opted to keep 15.8 million pound left-back Filipe Luis on the bench.
Today, Courtois looked unbeatable. Any thoughts that he be spectator against Leicester were soon banished, as he was regularly called into action to deal with opportunities created by Jeff Schlupp, Riyad Mahrez and David Nugent. Commanding his area on set pieces and corners, Courtois caught the ball cleanly and displayed pace and coordination when clearing his lines.
In the second half, with the score still level, Mahrez caught Chelsea's defence on the break and played Nugent through in space. With only Courtois to beat, had he scored, the Foxes striker could have changed the course of the game, but the Blues' keeper pulled off an outstanding save. Clean sheets were a feature of Mourinho's previous title-winning teams at the Bridge, and in Courtois, he has a man between the posts who will make a major contribution in shutting out the opposition.
Part of that equation is the Blues' back line. Based on today's evidence, Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will be keeping Luis waiting a while longer for his full debut.
Costa and Hazard may have found the net today, but it was Ivanovic who put in a man-of-the-match display. The Serbian improved on his excellent performance against Burnley, which yielded a goal and an assist. Ivanovic is quite simply a beast of a player. Solid in defence, swashbuckling in attack -- he looks as though he could play in any position for Chelsea and, if called upon, that would no doubt include keeping goal.
Having had a header acrobatically saved by Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel, a subsequent rampaging run down the right flank saw Ivanovic decide to let Costa try his luck, feeding a neat pass to the 32 million pound striker who swept the ball home. One-nil to the Blues. Nerves settled.
After a frisky first half, the Foxes' defence started to tire. Mourinho sent on Ramires for Andre Schurrle and Willian for Oscar -- fresh, talented legs to create more problems. With heads turned by Chelsea's pacey substitutes constantly running at goal, a neglected Hazard was allowed too much freedom of movement on the left flank. Waltzing across the penalty area, with all the time in the world, the Blues' current player of the year drilled a low shot past Schmeichel. Two-nil Chelsea. Game over.
Having opened the 2014-15 campaign with back-to-back wins against newly promoted sides, the Blues will face a sterner examination of their title credentials at Goodison Park next Saturday when they face an Everton side that inflicted a first defeat on a returning Mourinho last season. This time around, the Special One has Costa to count on.
Chances may be few and far between, but the Spain international has already proven he can find the net and, as Leicester found today, that could be the telling difference. Failing that, there's always Ivanovic. It's early days yet, but Mourinho's Chelsea are going to take some stopping this season.
Mark Worrall has penned several books on the history and success of Chelsea Football Club. You can follow him on Twitter @gate17marco.