Friday 19 October 2018

Chelsea far from fluent but Hazard strike puts champions back in title conversation

Bournemouth 0 Chelsea 1

Chelsea's Tiemoue Bakayoko (right) and AFC Bournemouth's Jordon Ibe during the match at the Vitality Stadium. Photo: Steven Paston/PA
Chelsea's Tiemoue Bakayoko (right) and AFC Bournemouth's Jordon Ibe during the match at the Vitality Stadium. Photo: Steven Paston/PA

Dominic Fiffield

Antonio Conte fidgeted his way anxiously through the final stages, a picture of agitation on the touchline as Bournemouth finally roused themselves to discomfort the champions as best they could. Yet, by the end, the sense lingered that Chelsea's domestic campaign is returning to an even keel. Successive league wins have served to lance the tension.

The summit remains nine points away, of course, and Manchester City will hardly be fretting at a threat mustering at their back. But, after the trauma of losing to the leaders at home and then surrendering so meekly at bottom-placed Crystal Palace, Chelsea had to remind themselves of their own qualities. The sight of Eden Hazard revelling on the south coast, supplied by Cesc Fabregas's vision, was reassuring.

So too was the resilience which eventually saw them home. This team has been rendered fragile by the absence of N'Golo Kante, but here was a clean sheet achieved with the Frenchman completing his rehabilitation from hamstring trouble. The hope is he will feature in Rome in midweek when attention turns to ensuring progress in the Champions League. This team will travel pepped by this success.

There had been a swagger to Chelsea from the outset that was more reminiscent of last season's self-belief than the team's efforts of recent weeks, even if it failed, somehow, to yield an early advantage. Those victories over Watford and Everton, in the League Cup, over the past week were welcome even if the performances had not always convinced.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard celebrates his side's winning goa at Bournemouth. Photo: Steven Paston/PA
Chelsea's Eden Hazard celebrates his side's winning goa at Bournemouth. Photo: Steven Paston/PA

Conte, forever pointing at an onerous schedule, had craved the kind of comfortable afternoon in the Premier League only City currently seem to enjoy and yet, for all the slick rhythm of the approach play, the visitors ran aground too often on Bournemouth's stubborn defence.

Asmir Begovic, Thibaut Courtois' No 2 and a title winner last year, stifled them at times, notably when Alvaro Morata wriggled away from Simon Francis and a grounded Steve Cook. The goalkeeper's strong left arm deflected the forward's effort wide. That opportunity had really been created by Hazard's wonderful, improvised lay-off from Fabregas's fizzed pass, and it was the Belgian who tormented the hosts.

Hazard has made a habit of thriving in this arena, revelling in the space afforded him by Eddie Howe's team, and his menace was omnipresent. It was the forward who had collected Begovic's scuffed clearance midway through the first period and, having charged at Steve Cook, clipped Morata clear at his side only for the striker to place his shot the wrong side of the post.

That was wasteful from a player who had arrived here without a goal in a month, though that drought should have been broken before the break. David Luiz's side-footed attempt from Hazard's centre was touched goalwards by Cesar Azpilicueta in front of Begovic, prompting an assistant's flag for offside. Morata tapped in the rebound, with replays suggesting his compatriot had been played marginally onside by Nathan Ake.

His team-mates had mustered little in response to the visitors' monopoly of possession, Azpilicueta leaping well to flick away one Francis cross, with Jermain Defoe ineffective and withdrawn at the interval to add another body in midfield. Jordon Ibe offered a more direct threat, forcing Courtois to tip over a vicious drive, but there was still space for Hazard to exploit. Soon enough, Bournemouth's good fortune deserted them.

Morata's strength on the ball and lofted pass opened them up, Francis air-kicking and slipping to allow Hazard to collect and scuttle into the area. His finish was belted inside Begovic's near-post. It was the Belgian's fourth goal at the Vitality Stadium on his third visit, with Adam Smith soon resorting to clattering him in a bid to blunt his impact.

Bournemouth's Adam Smith battles with Chelsea's Marcos Alonso. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters
Bournemouth's Adam Smith battles with Chelsea's Marcos Alonso. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters

Howe will consider November's fixtures an opportunity for his team to haul themselves out of trouble, but this was an uncharacteristically anaemic attacking display against opponents who, shorn of Kante, had shipped eight goals in four matches. Marc Pugh, on for the injured Junior Stanislas, nodded over the bar and Benik Afobe saw one shot suffocated by Luiz. Yet the striker had also hobbled away before the end with his replacement, Callum Wilson, at least posing a proper threat thereafter.

Azpilicueta did well to block the substitute's shot from close-range, with Davide Zappacosta leaping to deny Pugh near the end. Yet it was Cook, up from the back and conjuring memories of Liverpool last year, who almost produced an equaliser only to curl his shot straight at a grateful Courtois. Chelsea had been tested, but had prevailed.

Observer

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