NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, England — Three quick thoughts from Chelsea’s 2-1 Premier League win over Newcastle at St. James’ Park on Sunday.
1. Chelsea show their grit when glitter falls short
Speaking after Chelsea’s 3-2 win over Arsenal last weekend, Maurizio Sarri said his priority was to coax 90 minutes of football out of his players that matched their thrilling opening 25 against the Gunners.
That aim remains unfulfilled. Chelsea’s football frequently faltered in the face of Newcastle’s fierce resistance at St James’ Park, but their mental fortitude ensured they achieved the more important target of maintaining their perfect start to the Premier League season.
Eden Hazard and Mateo Kovacic were handed their first Chelsea starts of the campaign by Sarri after coming off the bench to carve up Arsenal, and both were at the heart of what the Blues did well in a dominant but ultimately unfulfilling first half.
Chelsea enjoyed almost 80 percent possession in the opening 45 minutes, with Jorginho completing more passes (86) than the entire Newcastle team, but one low Pedro shot was the extent of what Martin Dubravka had to deal with.
Soaking up pressure with a five-man defensive base, Newcastle’s only attacking threat was of the aerial variety. Salomon Rondon, never a man to pass up chasing a lost cause, headed wide after Chelsea had failed to clear a corner.
After the break Newcastle’s confidence grew as Chelsea’s fluency waned, so it was something of a surprise when Marcos Alonso won a penalty in the 76th minute after being slipped in by Hazard. The Belgian stepped up and hammered his first goal of the season beyond Dubravka.
Newcastle’s response was emphatic but their joy only brief. Just four minutes separated Joselu glancing in DeAndre Yedlin’s cross from the right and the American bundling the ball into his own net after Olivier Giroud’s knockdown and Alonso’s tame shot.
While not the touchline ball of emotion that Antonio Conte was, Sarri roared and punched the air at full-time. This is a taste of what his team can expect more often in the Premier League, and on a day when their dazzling feet threatened to fall short, he will have been pleased to see his players bare their teeth.
2. Hazard shows what’s to come under Sarri
It took a matter of seconds for a key element of Newcastle’s game plan to become clear, as Matt Ritchie clattered into the back of Hazard. The Belgian spent a significant portion of the opening 20 minutes on the ground following heavy tackles, with Willian warming up hopefully on the touchline.
Sarri had on Friday insisted that Hazard was only fit enough for 50 or 60 minutes, but in the end he was the only Chelsea attacker to last the distance as he again proved that when the stakes are at their highest, he will always be the man in blue expected to deliver.
Hazard darted and probed throughout the first half, frequently drifting infield from the left. When he wasn’t limping he was finding pockets of space, firing two shots through a crowd just wide of Dubravka’s goal and supplying Pedro for Chelsea’s best chance after a breathtaking dribble.
After the break Hazard’s influence was less constant. Perhaps wary of his finite energy reserves, his sphere of movement narrowed, but with the ball at his feet he remained the one man who could unlock Newcastle. One sharp pass allowed Pedro to find Cesar Azpilicueta, but Dubravka saved the defender’s low shot.
When the breakthrough finally came, it was Hazard who picked the lock, slipping the ball into an unmarked Alonso in the box and then smashing the subsequent penalty beyond Dubravka. Jorginho, who nervelessly converted against Arsenal, picked up the ball but there was no argument as to the taker.
Hazard now boasts one goal and two assists from a grand total of 133 Premier League minutes on the pitch. All the early signs are he will thrive in Sarri’s system and, once he returns to peak fitness, you suspect there will be much more to come from him and this developing Chelsea team.
3. Newcastle are only a Premier League team with Benitez
Even by the standards of the Mike Ashley era, the atmosphere around St James’ Park at present seems strange. Traditional early-season optimism has been dimmed not just by a lack of ambition in the summer transfer market, but also by the spectre of Rafa Benitez walking away that looms over every match.
Benitez’s command of his team, and of this city, was evident throughout the afternoon. Few other Premier League managers could emerge unscathed from reportedly dropping their popular captain after a training-ground row, but Jamaal Lascelles’ absence prompted no dissent around St James’ Park.
It helped, of course, that on the pitch his players defended with the tactical diligence and dogged determination that has become the Spaniard’s trademark until Hazard’s penalty broke their resolve.
Newcastle looked an impressive sum of limited parts. That is testament to Benitez’s coaching, and also forms the basis for his argument that he needs greater backing. In the final year of his contract, his threat to leave if Ashley doesn’t give it to him is a very real one.
The concern for Newcastle is that his exasperation reaches its limit earlier, perhaps following a similarly frugal January.
Given how unkind the autumn fixture schedule has been — having already faced Tottenham and Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal await Newcastle after the international break — they will do well to be in a league position of considerable strength by then.
As long as they have Benitez, Newcastle should feel confident that there will be at least three worse teams in the Premier League this season, and probably a few more. But building your survival hopes on the extent of one frustrated man’s patience is far from the most comfortable way to get by.