Where there is Eden Hazard, there is hope. Once again, the Belgian’s trickery made the difference at Stamford Bridge. His dazzling capacity to bamboozle drove his Chelsea side to victory, keeping them in the Premier League’s top four. In the process they left a resolute but ultimately toothless Newcastle marooned in the relegation zone. How the visitors’ manager Rafael Benitez must crave such talent to command. Though with a chairman like Mike Ashley, it remains unlikely to be heading his way.
“About the team I am optimistic, about other things I will not say,” was his response when asked if he believed necessary squad strengthening is plausible this transfer window.
At Chelsea the issue is different. At the Bridge it is about keeping hold of what they have. Before the match began, a huge banner bearing Hazard’s name was passed above the heads of those stationed in the Matthew Harding stand. The message was clear: the home crowd do not want their star man tempted away by Real Madrid. They know without him the chance of achieving anything this season will be shot.
What must have dismayed the faithful watching their team line up at the start was that, instead of patrolling the areas behind a front man where he can inflict maximum damage, Hazard was once again stationed in the middle of Chelsea’s attack. You know, where a centre-forward might be. Because at Chelsea right now, with Alvaro Morata injured, Olivier Giroud left to spend his time grooming his facial hair and Gonzalo Higuain still a rumour in the transfer gossip columns, centre-forwards appear to have gone out of fashion.
Worse, as the game began, it was a position which appeared likely to leave him suffering from claustrophobia as Hazard found himself in territory more overrun than a rush-hour tube train. Because not for the first time in his career, Benitez had arrived at Stamford Bridge with a plan to frustrate. He strung five men across his backline and overloaded midfield, giving the eager academy graduate Sean Longstaff his first Premier League start.
As an approach, Benitez’s crowd-and-frustrate tactic maintained its purpose for all of eight minutes before Chelsea decided to bypass the midfield thicket. David Luiz picked up the ball in his own half and simply launched it forward. It was either a piece of tactical genius, or hit-and-hope good fortune, but the ball bounced perfectly behind the visitors’ defence. And Pedro, running in from the right into space, took a touch to befuddle Ciaran Clarke, before deftly chipping his shot over Martin Dubravka. It was a finish stunning in its audacity, given that the Newcastle keeper was barely off his line.
Strangely, however, this was not the launch-pad a finish of such precision promised to fashion. Instead, without Newcastle doing much to engage with the game, Chelsea loosened their grip.
“After the goal we thought now is easy, but it wasn’t,” said their manager Maurizio Sarri. “We slept for 25 minutes. We need to improve in the mental reaction.”
With Chelsea apparently dozing, Newcastle began to forge chances. Florian Lejeune struck a shot straight into Kepa Arrizabalaga’s chest, there was a nice exchange between Christian Atsu and Solomon Rondon which opened up space behind the home defence, but the centre-forward hammered over, before Ayoze Perez put his shot wide from Rondon’s old-school flick-on.
Then, on 39 minutes, Newcastle won a corner. Matt Ritchie floated the ball towards the penalty spot where Clark found space between Luiz and Antonio Rudiger to thunder a header into the corner of the goal. Cue some unhinged celebrations in the visitors' end, culminating in the Newcastle fans serenading their manager in song. In truth “Rafa, Rafael, Rafa Rafael, Rafael Benitez” was not a chant heard often during the Spaniard’s time in charge at the Bridge.
The goal gave Newcastle an injection of confidence. DeAndre Yedlin piled down the right and crossed to the back of the Chelsea area where Ritchie, watching the ball on to his left foot and apparently set for a goal of the month effort, tamely skewed his shot wide.
But then, just as frustration was beginning to take hold in the home stands as the second half began, the quality lurking in Chelsea’s ranks came bubbling to joyous fruition. Hazard fizzed and jinked down the middle, his boots a blur of florescent yellow. With half the Newcastle defence on their heels, he passed wide to Willian. The Brazilian stepped inside, squared up Yedlin and steered a glorious, curling shot into the far corner. It was a magnificent riposte to the gathering suggestion that Chelsea are lacking forward power. And further indication that, after rejecting a bid from Barcelona last week for Willian, Sarri’s squad is coveted throughout the game.
By now, Hazard was in charge. His speed on the break requiring Newcastle to remain alert to his presence even when they tried to move forward. When Callum Hudson-Odoi came on to join him, replacing Pedro, the crowd made it clear Hazard was not the only one whose future they are anxious about. “We want you to stay,” they pleaded at the young England hopeful, currently being courted by Bayern Munich. And when Hazard was replaced by Giroud in the dying embers of the game, the applause carried a significant “don’t go” message.
“Odoi is becoming for us a very important player,” said Sarri. “We need wingers. We need Odoi, we need Willian, we need all of them.”
Whether he manages to keep hold of his creative hub is becoming the key question of his managerial reign at the Bridge. How Benitez must envy him: if only he had a bit of quality to lose.
Full time: Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Hardly Chelsea at their best, but, then again: 1) when are Chelsea at their best these days, and 2) what actually do Chelsea at their best look like?
Pedro's tidy early opener suggested this might be comfortable, but foot was removed from pedal and Newcastle deservedly got back into it. A second half push - resulting in a beauty of a winner from Willian - completed the job, just about.
Few medium-term issues will have been addressed by that win but, most importantly, Chelsea have opened up a six-point gap between themselves and fifth-placed Arsenal. They play each other next weekend...
90+1 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
There will be four added minutes of overhit David Luiz diagonals and Rudiger-versus-Rondon aerial duels.
86 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Olivier Giroud joins the party, and Hazard departs.
84 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
A wayward Hazard flick receives an anxious howl from the home fans, as things start to get a little nervy. Chelsea have some space to exploit, though...
82 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Double change for the visitors: Jacob Murphy on for Perez, Javi Manquillo on for Yedlin.
79 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Newcastle corner. Alarm bells ring. It's taken short, and Alonso heads away.
Anyway, Pedro off, Hudson-Odoi on: Stamford Bridge gently roars its approval, although they shouldn't forget the quietly reliable contribution of Pedro, who remains Chelsea's next most potent attacking option after Hazard this season. He does get a warm ovation, though.
76 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Luiz ends up in a heap after being caught late by Perez in the act of clearing the ball upfield. More excitingly, Bayern Munich Transfer Target Callum Hudson-Odoi (to give him his full name) is imminent.
73 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Free-kick to Chelsea, 30 yards out. Willian poses as if to take it, but it's David Luiz who eventually careers towards the ball to knuckle it over the bar.
71 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Chelsea have their collective backsides in gear at the moment - so much more urgency than in the first half. Playing in and around these tiny spaces can't always be successful, but it can be done with some purpose, and they've summoned some.
66 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Lascelles is down with what is known in the sports medicine world as "a nasty-looking gash" to his knee, but I imagine he'll try and soldier on. Substitute Federico Fernandez is being readied nonetheless.
63 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Yellow card for Jorginho, after he tugs back Rondon on the counter-attack. Kovacic comes off, Barkley comes on.
62 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Ross Barkley - whose exact Chelsea purpose I must admit I am yet to figure out - is about to come on. Meanwhile, Newcastle wants a penalty after Perez is clipped by Rudiger...nothing doing.
59 min - Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Chelsea now look in the mood to find a killer blow, rather than let this turn into a risky procession. Fortunately for them, perhaps, no Premier League team have managed fewer second-half goals than Newcastle this season.
GOAL! Chelsea 2 (Willian, 57 min) Newcastle 1
Superb. And right out of the blue, at least as far as Willian is concerned. He receives the ball on the left, there seems precious little on, but he jinks quickly inside and belts the ball into the far corner! Vintage stuff from the Brazilian, and something he should be doing far more regularly.
56 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 1
Chance! Alonso has space on the left to deliver a cross, the ball eventually finds its way to Pedro, 10 yards out, but he scuffs a left-foot shot straight at Dubravka!
55 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 1
Kante steals the ball from Isaac Hayden in the final third, but Willian can't capitalise after being set free on the left. The resultant corner vauses some brief havoc in the Newcastle box, but the whistle goes for a foul by Rudiger.
53 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 1
Chelsea continue to drill their way through the middle of Newcastle's massed defence, with Jorginho at the controls, but he elicits a few more groans from Stamford Bridge by drifting another powderpuff pass out for a goal kick.
50 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 1
Callum Hudson-Odoi and Olivier Giroud - both of whom have qualities that might liven this game up a bit, or at least add a dimension - are sent to warm up for Chelsea.
47 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 1
Chance! Willian and Kovacic get into a muddle, but N'Golo Kante nips in and sweeps the ball superbly out to Pedro, who advances into the area to force Dubravka into an excellent save!
We go again...
No changes for either side.
Half time: Chelsea 1 Newcastle 1
47 minutes of watching Jorginho very carefully pass the ball 15 yards forward, interrupted only by Pedro's passable impression of a striker and Ciaran Clark's towering header of an equaliser.
Chelsea are Sarri's work in progress, of course, but that progress can often be quite excruciating to watch. Most concerning of all, Hazard has been peripheral.
42 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 1
Chelsea very nearly sneak back into the lead, as Willian drifts in behind, but he pokes a weak finish beyond Dubravka...and wide.
GOAL! Chelsea 1 Newcastle 1 (Clark, 40 min)
Two Newcastle corners in quick succession. Ritchie bends in the second, up climbs Ciaran Clark above David Luiz, there's nobody on the Chelsea post, and Newcastle are level!
39 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
Willian floats a corner straight into the hands of Dubravka. What happened to the humble corner? They're just no fun anymore.
36 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
Another opening for Newcastle! This time its Ayoze Perez, who pounces on a Rondon flick-on, but he can only fire the ball wide!
33 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
Pedro receives the ball in the hole between the Newcastle defence and midfield and, for once, a Chelsea player thinks about shooting from distance...only to curl the ball tidily into the gloves of the waiting Dubravka.
30 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
Half-chance! Rondon combines neatly with Atsu on the edge of the Chelsea box but, with Azpolicueta inevitably for company, can only flash a left-foot shot high and wide.
27 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
Lejeune gives Arrizabalaga something to do with a tame volley from 25 yards, following a Newcastle corner. Meanwhile, we've seen precious little of Eden Hazard in this opening half-hour, which seems strange to type.
25 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
Chelsea free-kick on the right (Matt Ritchie is booked for fouling Azpilicueta) which Willian clips in and Luiz steams in to head over, via a deflection of Lascelles, but a goal-kick is the decision.
24 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
A word about David Luiz's forward-thinking approach: that assist was his 26th through-ball of the Premier League season, precisely twice as many as his nearest challenger...Jorginho. Meanwhile, this game is proving to be a decent sedative, if you need some sleep.
20 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
Newcastle can't get the ball, unless some Chelsea carelessness permits them to, but the home side are still trying to wave the Bayeux Tapestry when a simple handkerchief might just do. Jorginho, embroiderer-in-chief, is at the heart of everything, without actually doing much: classic middle management, really.
17 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
A confident zip about Chelsea's passing now, thanks to a rather rare early breakthrough. Stamford Bridge have been spared the same teeth-grindingly frustrating search for an opener that Everton, Leicester and Southampton's defences ensured.
12 min - Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0
74% of the ball has been Chelsea's so far, unsurprisingly, but it was a little alarming how easy it was to get beyond the Newcastle defence so early in the game. But that's what Luiz brings to this team - he tries that pass about half a dozen times a game, so Benitez ought to have known.
GOAL! Chelsea 1 (Pedro, 9 min) Newcastle 0
Kepa Arrizabalaga sets a few Chelsea hearts off by underhitting a pass out to Cesar Azpilicueta, but Chelsea's Mr Dependable hoofs it upfield to safety. Moments later, David Luiz tries something a little more targeted, clipping a beautiful pass behind the defence for Pedro, who lifts the ball over Martin Dubravka! Chelsea lead!
5 min - Chelsea 0 Newcastle 0
Willian, who has started brightly, keeps Jamal Lascalles honest out on the left, but can't find a way past. All Chelsea so far, but I suspect Benitez might have been prepared for that.
2 min - Chelsea 0 Newcastle 0
In fact, Newcastle appear to have won the coin toss and they've switched ends. Willian is caught by Florian Lejeune early doors, but he'll run it off.
Both teams in their customary colours, Chelsea get us off and under way, and Newcastle are defending in front of their own fans in the Shed End in the first half.
Rio Ferdinand defends Mike Ashley
Employing some rather dubious logic, the BT Sport pundit has just claimed that Newcastle fans should be "thanking" Mike Ashley, who he insists "spent £50m of his own money" to get them out of the Championship. Plenty of Newcastle fans with Twitter accounts are politely disagreeing. Still, there's some football in a few minutes.
They came out of the last transfer window more than £20m in profit. They have the smallest net spend in the Premier League. Nobody is asking for Ashley to put his money in, the club generates money he isn’t spending. He has taken money out this season. You’re welcome btw— Luke Edwards (@LukeEdwardsTele) January 12, 2019
“We know very well the situation. We have some problems. We are playing well, I think, but we are having a problem to score in this moment. We are trying to solve it. It’s not easy. But we have to do it. Pedro is very important for us, he is good in the spaces. We are trying to solve a problem, and we are trying to do so with Pedro.”
Retro Corner, Pt. 3
With all due respect to Salomon Rondon, could he do this to Chelsea? I suspect not.
Retro Corner, Pt. 2
And here, from Papiss Cisse in 2012, is one of the most ridiculous Premier League trajectories of all time:
Retro Corner, Pt. 1
Here's a striker Chelsea ought to have persevered with: the immaculate Hernan Crespo, scoring against Newcastle back in November 2005...
Sarri supersitious, the writing's on the wall
The key revelation from Maurizio Sarri's pre-match press conference - apart from the fact that he didn't bother watching the World Cup - was that he gets a haircut after every defeat.
Sarri, who was sporting a new buzz-cut following Chelsea’s defeat by Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final, also revealed that he shaves his head whenever his team loses. “For five years I have been doing that,” he said. “In the last three years in Naples [with Napoli] we lost 12 matches in three years.”
No surprises for Sarri, perhaps: a front three of Willian, Hazard and Pedro
Newcastle's starting XI features former Chelsea perma-loanee Christian Atsu. A muted goal celebration, perhaps?
Chelsea's striking lack of firepower
Four goals in five Premier League games is the sum total of Chelsea's attacking threat at Stamford Bridge since mid-November. Since then, Everton, Leicester and Southampton have all brought their middling rearguards to west London and come away without a dent.
Quite what Maurizio Sarri - or, more to the point, Roman Abramovich - intends to do about this, in January and beyond, is not clear. There is talk of Gonzalo Higuain, 31, finally taking the Premier League plunge, whispers of tempting Bournemouth with a mindboggling fee for Callum Wilson, but little mention of the mere idea of bringing back a striker they actually own (Michy Batshuayi or Tammy Abraham) to sort the problem from within.
Perhaps Chelsea just aren't the place for a deadly striker. Only twice since Kerry Dixon in 1985 has a Chelsea player broken the 30-goal barrier (Didier Drogba in 2006 and 2009): in the Premier League era alone, Arsenal players have done so 12 times, Manchester United and Liverpool seven times each, while Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero have reached 30 goals seven times between them in the last seven years.
Rafa Benitez's rigid Newcastle are in town this evening, and the expectation is that Sarri will again go strikerless: Eden Hazard operating in his less favoured central role, with two of Willian, Callum Hudson-Odoi or Pedro for company. Otherworldly as Hazard can be, that rather limits the end product to their endless crosses from the flanks.
Team news in a bit...