If you were to choose a blueprint for how to finish a season, Chelsea’s last two matches were not it. After a limp draw to Huddersfield left a bad taste in supporters’ mouths on Wednesday night, Sunday’s 3-0 defeat to Newcastle United certainly will be making them want to gag.
The most annoying part of the defeat isn’t that Chelsea won’t qualify for next season’s Champions League. It’s the way that Chelsea were defeated that is the most problematic sign.
The hopes of sneaking into the Champions League next season were always slim, and even the most positive Chelsea supporter likely had doubts that it would happen. But in a match where a victory was needed, Chelsea put in one of their worst performances of the season. It was so bad that the normally steady and consistent N’Golo Kante was seen giving the ball away needlessly and getting caught out of position.
It leaves Chelsea Football Club with a lot to ponder ahead of the FA Cup Final next weekend. Manager Antonio Conte once again had a few surprises in his starting 11, bringing in Ross Barkley for Cesc Fabregas and restoring Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard to the team. None of his decisions worked. In fact, it took 52 minutes for Chelsea to muster a single shot at the Newcastle United goal.
The home side had no such problems getting started. They took advantage of Chelsea’s sluggish performance and had the better of the play throughout. It took Newcastle just 9 minutes to create their first really good chance on goal when Dwight Gayle chested the ball down for Jonjo Shelvey just outside the box, and Shelvey’s wicked half-volley forced Thibault Courtois to make a difficult save on a shot that was hit with real pace.
Mohamed Diame took aim at the Chelsea goal moments later after picking up a pass from Jacob Murphy and firing a shot from 25 yards that had Courtois sprawling to his near post to tip wide.
Newcastle kept up the pressure, and it eventually paid off. Matt Ritchie’s left-footed crosses had given Chelsea issues all afternoon, and this one from the right side evaded the entire Chelsea defence and found Murphy clear on goal. Murphy’s brave attempt to lob Courtois was punched out by the Belgian, but Gayle came sailing in unmarked to glance a header into the wide-open net and give Newcastle the lead they deserved.
The home side weren’t content with just the one goal, and they should have been 2-0 up just minutes later when Shelvey ghosted past a weak challenge from Barkley to find himself through on goal, but Shelvey opted for power and fired his shot into the stands.
Courtois looked increasingly frustrated with his defence and midfield because of their inability to either control the ball or keep Newcastle from getting shots on target, having been forced to make good saves from Gayle and Ayoze Perez in order to keep the score at 1-0.
Chelsea started the second half looking a bit sharper, and their first attempt on target came from Olivier Giroud. Barkley found a bit of space down the right and fired in a cross for Giroud who was just inside the penalty area. Giroud instinctively flicked the ball with the outside of his left boot and forced a flying stop out of Martin Dubravka.
Chelsea’s resurgence didn’t last long. Just five minutes after Chelsea’s first shot of the match, Perez put in Newcastle’s second when he diverted a speculative shot from Jonjo Shelvey past the stranded Courtois.
Newcastle put the match to bed just after the hour when Perez again took advantage of some very generous marking from a free kick. Chelsea somehow managed to allow Florian Lejeune to make a run towards the back post completely unmarked, and Lejeune’s volley back across goal found Perez who once again found himself with a tap-in.
That goal seemed to take away whatever fight Chelsea may have had in the match, and the Chelsea players seemed to just be waiting for the match to end.
Chelsea have six days to prepare themselves for the FA Cup Final against Manchester United. On evidence of Sunday’s match, there needs to be a whole lot of soul-searching from the club before next Saturday.