After their 3-0 victory at Selhurst Park Chelsea fans must have hoped that the nightmare was over, that the autumn horrors had been a bad dream, that Jose Mourinho would miraculously reappear in the dug-out like Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower.
However, it is not just the the league table that reveals the reality. On the pitch Chelsea’s recovery under Guus Hiddink remains fragile. Despite twice taking the lead last night they were rarely in command against a smart West Brom side also mired in lower mid-table.
When the final whistle went Diego Costa raged at the officials and opponents, but the anger was born of frustration at a season that stubbornly refuses to follow the script, not least for the outgoing champions.
In practical terms, with Tottenham losing, this result moved Chelsea a point closer to the Champions League spot, but it underlined why that remains an improbable target. The attacking game is beginning to function again, with Cesc Fabregas rediscovering his radar, but the midfield balance is not right and the defence appears vulnerable against bold opponents - which is a problem in a season in which every opponent is bold.
West Brom arrived with a terrible record at Stamford Bridge. They had lost 12 and won none of their last 14 matches here. Tony Pulis’s own history here was no better having lost on all six visits. But they still came with ambition. The days are over when a team such as Albion, as they did under Bryan Robson a decade ago, would write off a match like this and field the sort of team now deployed in cup ties. Albion had won their last two league matches and if their default setting often appears defensive they were keen to take the game to Chelsea. “There were certain areas we thought we might cause them problems,” said Pulis, “I didn’t just want to sit.”
Chelsea began promisingly enough, showing rather more of the style and swagger of champions than a month ago. That was evident from the off as Fabregas freed Costa who nutmegged Jonny Evans before fizzing a rising drive wide.
As the half wore on it became clear the Fabregas-Costa telepathy is restored, Chelsea’s goal began with this combination. But it was also evident that playing Fabregas as a quarterbacking midfielder does leave a hole in the defensive cover, as was shown by Albion’s response.
Chelsea’s opening goal was a beauty, it was also unlikely to have been scored under Jose Mourinho because both full-backs were committed in advanced positions. Fabregas floated a pass into Costa who laid the ball off to Willian. He fed Branislav Ivanovic on the overlap and the Serb’s low cross was tucked in at the far post by Cesar Azpilicueta, arriving ahead of Chris Brunt. It was Azpilicueta’s second league goal in 105 appearances, the other was also against West Brom, in August.
Chelsea won that match, moving them ahead of Arsenal in the league, with Pedro scoring on debut. It seemed the platform for the much-garlanded Barcelona player, gleefully poached from Manchester United’s grasp, to give Chelsea fresh impetus. It has not quite worked out that way with Pedro’s season summed up by the way he lost possession to Darren Fletcher after 34 minutes. Fletcher, outstanding again, switched the ball to Gardner, an early substitute for James Morrison who has a hamstring problem. Gardner is known for his long-range shooting but he was allowed to advance into the empty space in front of Chelsea’s centre-backs before driving a low shot past Thibaut Courtois from 25 yards.
The equaliser was not completely out of the blue. While Willian and Oscar had gone close to doubling their leader Courtois had already had to save from Craig Dawson and James McClean as Albion demonstrated their set-piece expertise.
Chelsea seemed unnerved by the goal and Rondon, turning off Terry onto Fletcher’s pass, wasted a fine chance to give Albion a half-time lead. When the teams returned - Hiddink having withdrawn Pedro - McClean, with a header from Rondon’s pass, spurned another opening.
“We started well and should have scored a second,” said Hiddink, “but then we conceded an unfortunate goal. Then we see a lack of confidence. We have to rebuild that.”
The closeness of the match added spice with Costa and Olsson going face-to-face throughout the match, Yacob courting a second yellow card before being subbed, and both teams taking every opportunity to pressure Anthony Taylor. The referee, though forced to issue a plethora of yellow cards, had a fine game and resisted.
Albion seemed to enjoy the combative nature of the match more than their hosts and looked the likelier scorers when Chelsea suddenly regained the lead. Fabregas sent Willian galloping down the right and his fiercely-driven cross was turned in at the near post. Kenedy claimed the goal but TV replays showed the crucial touch was off the knee of Gareth McAuley, who had tracked his run.
Boaz Myhill brilliantly saved a deflected Costa shot as Chelsea went for the kill - as they needed to because there was never any sense that the points were safe. So it proved. With five minutes left a quick free-kick caused problems in the Chelsea box and James McClean seized upon a loose ball to drill the ball in from just outside the box.
It was no less than Albion deserved. They finished the match looking the more likely.winners, but when the whistle went they were the celebrating team and afterwards Pulis spoke of gaining another point towards the 40 that indicates safety. For a moment you had to check the league table to confirm they are above Chelsea, but this match showed why that is so.Reuse content