Sunday 22 July 2018

Hazard quality keeps Conte on his best behaviour

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 1

Chelsea's Alvaro Morata celebrates scoring his side's second goal. Photo: PA
Chelsea's Alvaro Morata celebrates scoring his side's second goal. Photo: PA

Jacob Steinberg

Chelsea played with controlled aggression to stamp out Newcastle United's early attempts at insurrection at Stamford Bridge, but there were no touchline histrionics from Antonio Conte this time.

There was no need for a repeat of the eruption that led to the manager being sent from the touchline in the tight win over Swansea City on Wednesday. Instead it was an afternoon for Conte to stand back and appreciate Eden Hazard's special talent as the Belgian helped Chelsea recover from a goal down to close the gap on Manchester City to eight points at the top of the table.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte applauds the supporters. Photo: Reuters
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte applauds the supporters. Photo: Reuters

Conte was mostly on his best behaviour after being charged with misconduct by the English FA, although there was one moment when the combustible Italian let his emotions get the better of him. Chelsea were trailing to Dwight Gayle's early goal when he could be seen leaping around in disbelief at one refereeing decision, with the rest of the home bench joining in with the protests after seeing a penalty appeal waved away, but it was a comfortable workout for the champions in the end.

Hazard scored twice, either side of Alvaro Morata's 10th goal of the season, and the home fans revelled in mocking Rafael Benitez, jeering their former interim manager when he sliced a ball back into play in the first half.

Although Chelsea and Newcastle bear little animosity towards each other, the identity of the man standing to Conte's right on the touchline gave this fixture an added edge, a bit of snarl. Benitez has plenty of history with Chelsea, from those shit-on-a-stick Champions League semi-finals in the distant past to that fraught, brief and ultimately successful spell here four years ago, and the diehards in the Matthew Harding Stand greeted him with a loud chorus of boos before kick-off, making it clear that his past ties with Liverpool will always carry more weight than bringing the Europa League to Stamford Bridge.

The Spaniard could count on the undying adoration from the boisterous following in the away end, though, where his name was being sung with admiring passion even before Newcastle silenced the locals in the 12th minute. Teams managed by a manager of Benitez's perceptiveness can never be underestimated, for all that Newcastle's early promise has faded in recent weeks, and the visitors began with impressive ambition, surprising the champions by pressing high and taking the game to them instead of parking the bus from the first minute.

Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger stays ahead of Newcastle United's Jacob Murphy. Photo: Reuters
Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger stays ahead of Newcastle United's Jacob Murphy. Photo: Reuters

Mikel Merino had the first chance, shooting straight at Thibaut Courtois from 18 yards, and the indecision in the Chelsea defence that led to Gayle's messy goal could be attributed to Newcastle's initial exuberance.

Gayle started the move, leaping to get his head to a long punt forward, and Conte must have been alarmed by his side's failure to react, with N'Golo Kante too meek in his attempt to mop up, and Marcos Alonso made everything worse with an ill-advised back-pass. Courtois bravely charged out to deny Jacob Murphy but Chelsea's goalkeeper had been pulled out of position and Gayle stroked the loose ball into the empty net.

After a slight wobble, however, Chelsea absorbed the blow. Gayle had put Newcastle in a similarly commanding position at Old Trafford two weeks ago, only for Manchester United to respond with four unanswered goals, and the hosts made sure that the striker's enterprise went to waste again.

Conte has used a 3-5-1-1 system this season. The formation is designed to coax the best out of Hazard, granting him the freedom to roam from a central position and enhance his goalscoring threat, and it was arduous for Newcastle, who strained to track the Belgian's slippery movement and to contain the brilliance of his dribbles. Hazard relished tormenting the visitors and, having been denied once by Darlow, he settled Chelsea down in the 21st minute. Newcastle's defending had become worryingly ragged. Andreas Christensen sent a looping header against the left post and the team in black and white stripes had not fallen back into shape when Cesar Azpilicueta whipped in another menacing cross. Florian Lejeune stretched to divert the ball away from Morata, who surely would have scored, but Hazard followed up, driving a bouncing shot past Darlow. The home fans relaxed and it was only a matter of time before Chelsea scored again.

Victor Moses, making his first start since suffering a hamstring injury two months ago, laced a cross into the six-yard box from the right and Morata headed in his 10th goal of the season, Darlow taken out of the picture by the quality of the delivery. It was a fine way for Chelsea to respond to adversity and Moses was instrumental in their third goal, earning a penalty thanks to Matt Ritchie's desperate tackle with 16 minutes left.

Hazard dinked it down the middle to give his team a precious cushion, not that Conte stopped barking out instructions until the final whistle allowed him to relax.

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