It gets worse. After successive goalless draws, Rafa Benitez concluded his third game at Chelsea with the club’s first defeat in London’s East End since 2002. Not only that but the new manager was outwitted by his old adversary Sam Allardyce, whose two substitutions at the interval changed the game after West Ham had gone in one-nil down.
Allardyce, once sarcastically derided by Benitez as making Bolton the team whose style everyone would want to emulate, brought on Matt Taylor and Mohamed Diame, both of whom made excellent contributions. Diame in particular was the dynamic force needed to break up the rhythm of Chelsea’s three attacking midfielders.
Benitez, concerned by a glut of fixtures that continues with the decisive Champions’ League game against Nordsjaelland on Wednesday, gave Oscar a rest this time with Victor Moses starting, but the latter was like most of his team-mates: fading badly when the home team finally applied some pressure towards half-time and then throughout the second period. Fernando Torres was another, having neatly set up Juan Mata for the opening goal. Just as alarming was how the defence – the one encouraging feature of those first two Benitez matches against Manchester City and Fulham - caved in near the end.
True, the equalising goal by the excellent Carlton Cole should have been disallowed for a push on Branislav Ivanovic but against that West Ham ought to have been level earlier when James Collins was wrongly penalised for a far more negligible challenge. The only blot on their day had come before kick-off, when it was confirmed that Andy Carroll has ligament damage and will be out for another six to eight weeks. OPT CUT He will stay with West Ham although his parent club Liverpool have been kept fully informed of developments.END CUT
“We have to improve on the pitch and the fans will be happy, Benitez insisted. “It will take time maybe.” That, of course, is the one commodity that Chelsea managers are rarely given. It is surely inconceivable that even Roman Abramovich would contemplate another change so soon, though the odds against Benitez going before Christmas are down to 12-1 and falling.
Asked if he was 100 per cent convinced he could see things through he replied: “I know100 per cent that we didn’t win it today.” The reason for that, he rightly declared, was that Chelsea’s improved first-half performance did not produce enough goals and then suddenly and dramatically deteriorated.
“When you are controlling the game like we were in the first half you have to score more,” he said. “We deserved to score more. It’s difficult to explain [the change] when you are so good first half.”
Allardyce had the explanation, in the change of both personnel and tactics. Convinced that his team were playing through midfield too much, he ordered better service into Cole and more use of the flanks, getting the ball behind Chelsea’s adventurous full-backs. Each of the three goals came from one or other of those methods.
“We over-complicated things first half and they really should have finished us off,” Allardyce admitted. “They were much better than we were. But we’ve ended up beating them fair and square.”
Chelsea had certainly made almost all the chances in a misleading first half-an-hour and were ahead after only 12 minutes. From a throw-in on the right, Moses sent Torres to the byline to cut back a perfectly placed and weighted pass for Mata to drive in his eighth goal of the season. It was Chelsea’s first for almost six hours and did not prevent the ritual outbreak of chants for the deposed Roberto di Matteo four minutes later. There should have been more goals. Moses miscued a cross from Ramires and when the visitors broke with four men against two, Torres clipped the pass from Ramires over the bar. Then Moses fooled Guy Demel utterly and Jussi Jaaskelainen had to make a fine save from Mata, unmarked again.
Not for half an hour did West Ham threaten, at which point they were harshly denied a goal, Martin Atkinson ruling that Collins had pushed Ivanovic in the build-up. The referee upset the home support again just before the interval by showing Petr Cech only a red card for handling outside the penalty area, the goalkeeper staying on the pitch to save well from Kevin Nolan’s header following the subsequent free-kick.
It was a sign of things to come. Nolan and Diame had fierce shots blocked before, just after the hour, a cross from Jarvis looped up and Cole leant all over Ivanovic to head his first goal of the campaign. In a rare piece of retaliation Mata struck a free-kick against the inside of a post but the flow of the game was in the other direction. Ashley Cole had to head off the line from Winston Reid and five minutes from the end Cole held the ball up neatly for Diame to beat Cech with a low drive.
The young Malian Modibo Maiga immediately replaced the scorer and in added time he picked up on Ashley Cole’s mistake and Nolan’s shot to score the third. The last word off the pitch was equally emphatic, Allardyce warning Benitez: “ You can’t do it if the fans are not behind you. And the only way to get that is to win.”