Wednesday 12 December 2018

Chelsea's slim Top Four hopes ended after humiliating defeat at Newcastle

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte

Damian Spellman

Ayoze Perez struck twice to end Chelsea's faint hopes of Champions League qualification as Newcastle secured a top-10 finish on their return to the Premier League.

The Blues, who face Manchester United in the FA Cup final next Saturday, simply did not turn up for what many believe could be Antonio Conte's final league game at the helm and were beaten 3-0 at St James' Park.

Dwight Gayle headed the home side into a 23rd-minute lead they richly deserved, and Perez's second-half double ended a run of four successive defeat and clinched 10th place, fuelling fresh calls from the stands for manager Rafael Benitez to extend his stay on Tyneside.

But as the Magpies added fifth-placed Chelsea to the recent scalps of Manchester United and Arsenal, the reigning champions headed south having given themselves little chance overhauling Liverpool in the race for the top four with an insipid display.

Newcastle started in confident fashion with Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie prominent, and it was Shelvey who tested returning goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with a well-struck ninth-minute half volley from Gayle's lay-off.

The Belgium international was in action again within seconds to parry Mohamed Diame's dipping effort with the visitors weathering something of a storm, although they eventually started to work their way into the game.

However, Courtois had to claw the ball away after team-mate N'Golo Kante had diverted Ritchie's shot and then saw Diame whistle a long-range effort inches wide.

But there was no escape in the 23rd minute when, after the keeper had scooped Jacob Murphy's looping effort away, Gayle headed the rebound home from close range.

It might have been worse seconds later when Shelvey powered his way into the box, only to blast his left-footed effort past a post when he seemed certain to score, and Courtois made a fine one-handed save to keep out Gayle's 27th-minute drive.

Cesar Azpilicueta picked out Ross Barkley's run into the box with a fine 33rd-minute pass as Chelsea threatened briefly, but the former Everton midfielder ran out of time and space before he could get a shot away.

Murphy dragged a stoppage-time effort wide with Courtois at full-stretch, but it was opposite number Martin Dubravka who needed every inch of his sizeable frame within seven minutes of the restart to keep out Olivier Giroud's deft flick.

The visitors' plight deepened after 59 minutes when Shelvey latched on to a lose clearance and saw his shot turned home by Perez, and worse was to come for Conte's men.

Barkley should really have reduced the deficit within three minutes, only to be denied by Dubravka's foot, and the miss quickly proved costly as Perez tapped home after Florian Lejeune had sent a Shelvey free-kick back across goal.

Conte threw on Alvaro Morata, Willian and Pedro, but it was to little avail as the hosts held firm.

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport