Chelsea came back from an early scare to see off Newcastle 3-1 at Stamford Bridge on a chilly Saturday afternoon. The Blues moved level on points with Manchester United, but defeat made it six winless matches for the visiting side.
Cesar Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard returned to Chelsea’s starting line-up after sitting out the midweek victory over Swansea. Tiemoue Bakayoko was again left out of the eleven with Danny Drinkwater starting alongside N’golo Kante.
Newcastle changed to a back three to counter Chelsea’s 3-5-2. Rafael Benitez’s side started solidly, with Chelsea being limited to an optimistic Alvaro Morata half volley in the first 10 minutes. Cesc Fabregas was, as he often does, enjoying the freedom in midfield, but some sloppy early play from his team-mates made for a scrappy opening to the match.
Errors from Chelsea were quickly punished. An aimless long ball saw Andreas Christensen dominated in the air. The ball then bobbled towards Marcos Alonso from a Jacob Murphy dribble, who seemed to poke a through ball to Murphy. Thibaut Courtois managed to block the on-rushing Murphy’s attempt, but the ball then ricocheted to the well-placed Dwight Gayle to pass into an empty next.
It was, of course, Fabregas who orchestrated Chelsea’s first significant chance. A Hazard run beyond Florian Lejeune was picked out perfectly by the Spaniard, but a star-shaped save from Karl Darlow prevented the Belgian from making it 1-1.
Soon after, Christensen saw his header collide with Newcastle’s post from an N’golo Kante cross.
A lofted pass brought the hosts’ next meaningful moment a few seconds later. Antonio Rudiger’s ball was short of the majesty of Fabregas’ earlier ping, but it had nearly as much impact. Morata brought it down alone in the box, and was clattered by Darlow from behind. No penalty was awarded, bizarrely.
The frustration at the decision was soon forgotten. Aerials into the box finally brought dividend, as a blocked cross fell to Chelsea’s star Belgian. He fired a shot into the ground, which bounced past the outstretched right arm of Darlow.
Newcastle’s high press was forcing Chelsea’s deep-lying midfielders and central defenders into the odd mistake. The direct bombardment from Antonio Conte’s men was at least as troubling for the visitors, however.
When Chelsea made it into Newcastle’s third, they always looked a threat.
Hazard was too frequently left in space, but it was the returning Victor Moses who brought the second goal. He quickly shifted the ball onto his right, and fired a flat cross into the middle. Morata simply had to turn the ball in with his head from a few yards out. The Spaniard was aided by a nudge on Chancel Mbemba, but there was not sufficient force to warrant a foul.
Once the Blues had taken the lead, the rest of the first half was all theirs. Fabregas was being allowed room to roam in midfield – which was downright reckless from Newcastle – and the front two were picking holes in the Magpies’ defence with their well-timed runs behind.
First-halves of lunchtime kick-offs are often sleep-inducing affairs. This match broke that trend, and an expectant Stamford Bridge faithful was treated to three goals before the players departed for their energy drinks and a change of shirt.
It was great to see Bobby Tambling on the pitch at half-time, and the all-time Chelsea great received a suitably rapturous reception.
Within moments of the second half beginning, Chelsea carved their guests open again. Newcastle continued to leave room down their flanks, and were unable to stop Moses or Hazard in one-on-one duels.
For all the pressure, Chelsea’s failure to punish Newcastle meant each counter-attack was a heart-in-mouth moment for the home crowd.
Eighty percent possession to start the second half did not bring as many chances as Conte will have expected. Newcastle were uncertain at the back, but the home side were not at their fluent best.
Benitez turned to his bench first, it was with marginally under 30 minutes to go. Isaac Hayden came on for Ayoze Perez, in a move that must have been about restricting the time Fabregas had on the ball.
The pattern of the match was unaffected by the change. The Blues were inefficient with the ball, and often it was Danny Drinkwater who broke down promising attacking moves. One moment of magic from the ex-Leicester man lit up the second half, however, as an outside-the-boot dink put Hazard through on goal. The Belgian could not quite sort his feet to convert the chance.
Moments later, Fabregas fed the ball to Moses down Chelsea’s right, which led to Matt Ritchie scything down the Nigerian international. It was as stonewall a penalty as you could ever imagine.
Hazard took his trademark three-step run up, and waited for Darlow to collapse to his left. A delicious dink down the middle secured the victory.
The former Lille forward has scored just one Chelsea hat-trick. That was also against Newcastle, and Hazard came very close to doing it again. Darlow put a strong left arm to block the attempt.
Chelsea’s pair of magicians, Hazard and Fabregas, were taken off in the 79th minute to be replaced by Bakayoko and Willian.
The match faded once Conte had withdrawn his star duo. Chelsea had almost all the ball, and Benitez’s changes had no major impact on the play.
Newcastle will not have pencilled in any points from this match when they saw the fixtures, but the continued defensive struggles are cause for concern in a team that lacks attacking punch. Chelsea, meanwhile, got the job done as they begin a favourable December fixture list.