Sunday 20 January 2019

Chelsea sparkle as Hughton's luck turns

Brighton 0 Chelsea 4

Brighton’s Tomer Hemed and Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen battle for the ball. Photo: Gareth Fuller
Brighton’s Tomer Hemed and Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen battle for the ball. Photo: Gareth Fuller

Dominic Fifield

There were times when the champions found this anything but a stroll on the south coast. Yet, in the end, their first league win of the year seemed restorative and will be remembered most for the exquisitely incisive rat-a-tat of passes which earned Chelsea their breathing space.

There was something hypnotic about that exchange between Willian, Michy Batshuayi and the irrepressible Eden Hazard, a flurry of accurate touches fizzed first time at breakneck speed while six Brighton & Hove Albion players, all in the vicinity, were left dizzied by it all.

None came close to an interception, each Chelsea touch dropping them further off the pace, before Batshuayi eventually flicked Willian into space to rip a finish gloriously beyond the diving Mathew Ryan from the edge of the area.

Chelsea's attack has been toothless over recent weeks, their centre-forwards enduring mid-season crises of confidence and the approach play too often running aground. Those deficiencies had prompted the emergency calls querying the availability of Andy Carroll, Peter Crouch and, more recently still, Edin Dzeko. But this was also a reminder of Chelsea at their devastating best, a team capable of slicing opponents apart on the counter and inspired by Hazard's every involvement.

The Belgian had already registered by the time he joined the celebratory huddle conjured by Willian's fine finish. He had gratefully accepted Victor Moses's cutback, prodded to him tentatively by Dale Stephens on the stretch, before converting beyond Ryan for the 100th league goal of a career spent in France and England.

His 101st would be scored before the end; whenever the visitors were permitted a gallop, they revelled. Ryan denied Willian and Batshuayi further reward, the former after another glorious move comprising a dummy from Hazard, a clever touch from Batshuayi, and a return skip and pass from the No 10. There is no living with Chelsea when they find rhythm as upbeat as this.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Albion are not often picked apart on home territory though, for all that they quaked whenever visiting players scuttled at them at pace. Their response to slipping behind was admirable and their own threat omnipresent, and invariably prompted by Christian Gross. Shane Duffy nodded wide while Tomer Hemed's inability to bury a close-range header from Gross's cross on the half-hour was wasteful. It provided another reminder of why Jürgen Locadia, a club-record £14m signing from PSV Eindhoven on Friday night, who was paraded on the turf before kick-off, could be key to this team's campaign once he has recovered from a hamstring injury.

Profligacy was an issue yet again here, with Willy Caballero unconvincing - at set-plays in particular - as he deputised for Thibaut Courtois. "I tried to do my job today. I'm happy with my game today," said Caballero. The Belgian should be able to return from ankle trouble at Arsenal in midweek.

Chris Hughton cursed the missed opportunities, painfully aware that his side have now registered a solitary goal in seven losses against the top six this season, though his players had other cause for complaint. They were right to feel aggrieved at Jon Moss's refusal to award a penalty after the excellent Ezequiel Schelotto had tumbled over Caballero's outstretched left leg immediately after Chelsea's two-goal advantage had been established.

Even if the referee's view of the incident had been blocked, his assistant was perfectly placed to spy the contact which brought the Italy international down. The wing-back would be booked for dissent before the break after tangling with Tiémoué Bakayoko in the box, with Moss again waving away the penalty appeals. His exasperation rather summed up the local mood.

Chelsea's Victor Moses celebrates scoring their fourth goal. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters
Chelsea's Victor Moses celebrates scoring their fourth goal. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters

"The difference between the two teams are two appeals that you need when you are playing against Chelsea," said Hughton. "For me (they were) two penalties. The first I thought at the time. The second one I wasn't as sure."

The hosts need their luck to turn, a notion reinforced by the sight of Davy Propper diving on to Gross's latest pinpoint delivery to loop a free header on to the top of the post early in the second half.

Schelotto, capitalising on Marcos Alonso's indecision, would force Caballero into another smart block before the end, yet Brighton's hopes of reigniting a faltering campaign with a positive result from Chelsea's first league visit in 29 years had effectively been dashed by that slack start. Everything thereafter was rather laced with desperation.

Even after 120 minutes of FA Cup football on Wednesday night Chelsea were always likely to deliver more punishment before the end. Willian would belt a free-kick on to the woodwork after the interval before Hazard, permitted to scurry unchecked from inside his own half, cut across the penalty area and finished crisply back across Ryan and into the far corner.

Then, the substitute Charly Musonda eased a fine pass from deep which was collected in front of goal by Moses, running unchecked off Markus Suttner. The wing-back's finish was eased beyond the goalkeeper and, after weeks of frustration, Chelsea could bask in the infliction of a thrashing. Observer

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