Wednesday 18 July 2018

Champions fall back on their instincts after surviving Hornets' sting

Chelsea 4 Watford 2

Cesar Azpilicueta (left) celebrates with Eden Hazard after scoring his side’s third goal Photo: PA
Cesar Azpilicueta (left) celebrates with Eden Hazard after scoring his side’s third goal Photo: PA

Nick Ames

'That's why we're champions," crowed the Matthew Harding Stand after César Azpilicueta, awkwardly but decisively, nudged in the goal that in effect settled a breathless affair.

In truth Chelsea had also showed plenty of reasons why a repeat of last season's feat looks a long shot but that analysis will come later: this was, ultimately, a triumph of guts and class on an afternoon when Marco Silva's fine Watford side had threatened to overrun them. The visitors had overturned Pedro's opener to lead 2-1 and missed chances to exacerbate a troubled October for Antonio Conte; that they were overcome owed plenty to two goals from the substitute Michy Batshuayi and a reserve of quality that has not always come to the fore in recent months.

Chelsea's Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi (R) controls the ball Photo: Getty
Chelsea's Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi (R) controls the ball Photo: Getty

Given Chelsea's recent toils, they would hardly have felt placed to choose between a stroke of luck or piece of early brilliance. Pedro's goal turned out to be the direct result of both. Chelsea should not have been awarded a corner when Eden Hazard, in reasonable proximity to the assistant referee, got his feet in a muddle near the corner flag and ran the ball out of play, but they took advantage spectacularly. Hazard was far brighter in working the set-piece to Pedro who, running around the ball five yards beyond the penalty area, whipped a sumptuous shot beyond Heurelho Gomes and off the far post. The goalkeeper, beaten by the pace and right-to-left curl on the shot, could not even offer a dive.

Silva spent the subsequent five minutes warming the ears of the fourth official, Andre Marriner. He could feel doubly peeved: the goal had been born of injustice and followed an opening 10 minutes in which Watford had looked crisp and bright. Antonio Rüdiger made two important interceptions in the opening exchanges and the away team looked like one that had - to borrow a phrase - the cojones to play on their own terms.

Their early swagger was checked and Chelsea should have doubled the lead shortly afterwards. Only Cesc Fàbregas will know why, having been sent away by Álvaro Morata, a chip over Gomes seemed the surest route to goal. Gomes deflected the effort away; the ball would probably not even have carried across the line.

Pedro, now firmly in the mood, hit low and narrowly wide from range and David Luiz shot at Gomes after more Watford sleepiness at a short corner. Chelsea were hardly dominant but their tempo had picked up and Watford, excepting a succession of left-sided free-kicks won by the irrepressible Richarlison, were not quite matching their enduring briskness with clear-cut moments of danger.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte applaudes the crowd a the final whistle Photo: Getty
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte applaudes the crowd a the final whistle Photo: Getty

But if they felt due a fortunate bounce, it arrived with the opening period's final action. David Luiz seemed to have done the hard part in rising above Troy Deeney to repel a long José Holebas throw, but could only head against an unwitting Tiémoué Bakayoko. Abdoulaye Doucouré, lurking 10 yards out, returned the bobbling ball with interest, thrashing across it and inside Thibaut Courtois's near post.

The second half now looked an entirely different proposition and, for Chelsea, the game quickly darkened further. They looked to have earned a reprieve when Richarlison, found at the back post by Kiko Femenía with the goal gaping, sliced wide. A matter of seconds passed with no lessons learned: from the next attack Richarlison showed far greater composure to slip Roberto Pereyra through and, with Chelsea's defence pulled hopelessly out of shape, the midfielder finished confidently. Watford's celebrations, half of the team piling onto Silva and his coaches by the technical area, were prolonged and extravagant.

More would have followed had Richarlison, again benefiting from negligent defending, not headed wide from six yards when completely unmarked. At this stage Watford, looking a few inches taller and several yards faster, were tearing Chelsea apart at will and it took another timely challenge from Rüdiger to stop Richarlison converting the substitute André Carrillo's centre midway through the half.

Conte introduced Batshuayi and Willian, switching to 4-4-2. The former drew gasps of exasperation when dispossessed too easily inside the D but prompted a much more positive reaction within seconds. Again the goal arose from a short set-piece, this time a free-kick on the right. The delivery eventually came from Pedro and Batshuayi, getting across Miguel Britos, flicked a deft header beyond Gomes. Watford, completely dominant since the interval, could only curse their inattention.

There was no monopoly on that particular quality and Christian Kabasele immediately passed up on a presentable chance, nodding straight at Courtois. But the direction of traffic reversed from that point and Batshuayi would have won the game nine minutes from time had he shot six inches lower after rolling his man near the penalty spot. Not long afterwards, Azpilicueta did. He was not placed to make the cleanest of connections when Willian's cross, which flicked off Kabasele, found him alone at the far post, but a combination of head and shoulder sufficed.

Batshuayi, bustling on to Bakayoko's header, then bundled a deceptive fourth at the death. From the jaws of a rout on their own turf, Chelsea had snatched the kind of victory that could alter a season's course.

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