Tuesday 21 January 2020

Chelsea knocked off top spot after week to forget

No controversy here, but no win for Chelsea either, Swansea rallying with spirit and conviction to score an 88th-minute equaliser which leaves Manchester United in pole position in the Premier League.

United took over at the top of the table earlier in the day by beating Arsenal, and Chelsea were unable to reply in kind. They were denied the win they needed by Pablo Hernandez, the striker Swansea signed from Valencia last summer, who beat Petr Cech with a laser-guided 20-yarder. Remarkably, after Chelsea had been the better team for much of the game, the Swans might have nicked it at the death, when Danny Graham, on as substitute, was close with a shot which shivered the framework of Cech's goal.

After recent events the focus was as much on the referee as the players.

Kevin Friend will have prayed for a routine assignment, or at least one free of dialogue with Mikel John Obi. To his relief, he got what he wanted. When Mikel was booked, for fouling Jonathan De Guzman, there was no drama. To universal relief, the football was good, free of histrionics and post-match accusations. Roberto di Matteo made a point of praising the referee after the game. The Chelsea manager said: "I've got to say the officials were very good today. Kevin Friend did very well, he kept the players calm. I congratulated him at the end."

Both teams were without important players. Injury has deprived Swansea of Michel Vorm, one of the best goalkeepers in the league, and Chico Flores at centre-half. Chelsea had John Terry completing his suspension and another of their old guard, Frank Lampard, plus David Luiz and their player of the season to date, Juan Mata, all casualties.

Opportunity knocked for Garry Monk, the Welsh club's long-serving club captain, who will have enjoyed his first appearance of the season in the Premier League as Flores' deputy. Chelsea's most interesting selection was Victor Moses, who caught the eye in the midweek cup victory over Manchester United, and justified his inclusion as Mata's deputy by scoring with a header after an hour.

Chelsea had the better of the first half, in terms of possession and chances created, their best goal attempt seeing a header from Fernando Torres cleared off the line by Leon Britton after a corner by man of the match, Eden Hazard.

For a long time Swansea, as is their custom, played some lovely, cohesive football, but without seriously inconveniencing Cech. Chelsea ought to have scored after 50 minutes, when Torres delivered an inviting cross from near the byline on the left, only for his work to be wasted when Moses headed weakly over the bar from six yards. The young winger quickly made amends.

Chelsea's chance seemed to have gone when Gerhard Tremmel flew to his left to turn behind a curling 25-yard free-kick from Hazard, but from the corner Gary Cahill's header reached Moses who, at the near post, headed in at close range, via the top of the upright. Laudrup sent on Nathan Dyer and Graham and switched to 4-2-4 in search of renewed equality, and boldness had its reward when Itay Shechter, on as subs, supplied Hernandez, who ran on before shooting into the left corner of Cech's net.

Di Matteo was disappointed to have his team knocked off the top for the first time since the table meant anything. "After the week we've had, it would have been good to finish it off with a 1-0 victory. We had more of the game and they didn't create many chances, but we lacked a cutting edge. All right, we're not top any more, but it's only November, and it's a long season. We're in touch and we're going to show how strong we are in the future," he said.

The Chelsea manager admitted it was nice to be talking about football, rather than discipline and off the field events. "That's how it should be every week," he said. "I wish it was."

Asked if recent controversies had affected his team's form, Di Matteo said: "I wouldn't read anything into all that. Away games in the Premier League are always difficult."

Chelsea expect to have Mata, fit again in time for Wednesday's Champions League tie at home to Shakhtar Donetsk. Terry will be available, but Di Matteo will assess his match fitness before the game.

Observer

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