Nine-man Chelsea beaten at the Bridge after Burnley hold on for shock away victory in Premier League opener

Chelsea 2 Burnley 3: Antonio Conte's champions, reduced to nine men following red cards for Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, got their title defence off to the worst start at Stamford Bridge

Miguel Delaney
Stamford Bridge
Saturday 12 August 2017 17:40
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 It was a chaotic and inconsistent display from the defending league champions
It was a chaotic and inconsistent display from the defending league champions

Sensational, unprecedented - and yet still somewhat familiar for Chelsea. Antonio Conte’s nine-man side were beaten 3-2 by a ruthless Burnley to become just the second defending Premier League champions ever to lose on the opening weekend, after Leicester City last season, and the first to do so at home - but those already remarkable stats barely begin to tell the story of this game.

There can never have been a first match as stunningly eyebrow-raising as this, and it went way beyond Aston Villa’s famous 3-1 win over Manchester United in 1995-96. Chelsea were simply smashed in the first half.

That was partly their own collapse in that period but mostly because Burnley so astutely sensed vulnerability and then so admirably just went for it, punishing Conte’s dishevelled side time and again. If it feels somewhat unfair that Sean Dyche and his players don’t get the focus for that, it’s because of the obvious wider context, from the fact the defending champions have been so levelled by a team many expect to be relegated.

The 2015/16 campaign hung over so much of this and, even if it is clearly overblown to immediately start thinking the same will happen - especially given the Alvaro Morata-inspired late rally - there were parallels that were impossible to escape.

At the very least, it similarly showed the power of momentum and mood in football as the match only escalated in shocks, just like the start of that notorious meltdown season.

Conte went into this campaign so publicly disgruntled about transfers, just like Jose Mourinho in 2015, with that leaving him with a depleted side for the first game - at least five regularly playing champions out and 20-year-old Jeremie Boga starting - and also setting the wrong tone and the wrong mood. There was just a palpable unease about the champions, an anxiety, and that became manifest on 14 minutes when Gary Cahill lunged in for a ball he miscontrolled to then take out Steven Defour and get sent off.

That negative momentum was only picking up, and was really rolling 10 minutes later when Sam Vokes efficiently directed in a Matthew Lowton cross to make it 1-0. That it seemed to take a deflection off David Luiz to take it past a despairing Thibaut Courtois only deepened the sense that there was something wrong with Chelsea, that this wasn’t going to be one of those afternoons.

Chelsea failed to hit the ground running on the opening day of the Premier League

Burnley knew it was one of those rare opportunities, and that was never better illustrated than when Stephen Ward scored a rare absolute screamer on 39 minutes. Chesting down a flick at the far corner of the 18-yard box, the Irish international let it bounce up before brilliantly volleying the ball past Courtois.

It was stunning, but still not as stunning as what was to come. Four minutes later, Vokes got another, heading in a Defour free-kick unmarked.

The champions were 3-0 down at home, but with multiple problems to think about.

Gary Cahill is shown a straight red

As woeful as this was and as agitated and apoplectic as Conte was getting, he could still plead a few caveats, and there was also the fact this was the finest argument yet for more signings.

He could mostly point to the team-sheet - that was even more depleted than United’s famous line-up on that opening day in 1995-96 - and would surely have only emboldened Burnley.

Without the suspended Victor Moses, the injured Eden Hazard and Pedro, the sold Nemanja Matic, and with new signing Morata not yet fully fit, Conte had to start with a greatly improvised XI.

Sam Vokes scores Burnley's third goal of the game

The side’s unfamiliarity with each other only made Chelsea more disconnected and out of sorts, with that gradually more pronounced as they suffered those escalating shocks of the Cahill red card and a steady stream of stunning Burnley goals.

Even then, though, Conte could take some solace from a genuinely spirited second-half fight-back that brought them to the brink of an equaliser.

Then there was the admirable influence of Morata. He may not have been fit enough to start the game but he was fit enough to change it once he came on, scoring a fine header from a brilliant Willian cross on 69 minutes and then flicking on for David Luiz to make it 2-0 on 87 minutes. The unfair irony was that he may have cost Chelsea a point by tapping in Andreas Christensen’s shot from an offside position that saw the flag go up, but he was still the one that made that relevant.

Vokes celebrates after extending his side's lead

The momentum had by then completely shifted, something that was all the more remarkable given that Cesc Fabregas had been sent off before the David Luiz goal for a second yellow card, as Chelsea still somehow looked so close to an equaliser. They came close, too, with Marcos Alonso having a shot cleared off the line in the last action of the game.

Conte will hope it is that rally and spirit that influences next week’s match to recover from this, but then you remember that he will now be without Cahill and Fabregas, and that that match is away to Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.

Michy Batshuayi reacts after a failed attempt on goal

It is already so key, already so possible that it perpetuates this negative momentum.

Chelsea have to find a way to stop it, they have to get back to what was familiar from last season - not 2015/16.

They need to ensure this was the falsest of starts.

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