Third place has never sounded so good. Chelsea capped off an excellent week with an excellent display, dispatching West Ham United 2-0 in a game significantly more comfortable than the scoreline might suggest. With Tottenham Hotspur dropping six points to Liverpool and Fulham, the Blues needed to make the most of their opportunity to vault over our good friends from North London. Happily, the Hammers were thoroughly obliging opponents.
Despite most of the starting lineup having played in the stressful 3-1 win over Steaua Bucharest, Chelsea flew out of the blocks, and it was only thanks to some freakishly incompetent finishing from Demba Ba that they didn't take a fourth-minute lead. Frank Lampard -- more on him a little while later -- fizzed in an amazing pass from deep to pick out the striker. Ba left James Collins for dead, and then, one on one against noted enemy of writers worldwide Jussi Jaaskelainen, he shot at an imaginary goal fifteen yards wide of the real one.
Alas, imaginary goals don't actually count in sports that aren't Calvinball, and for a while it looked as though the Blues would regret the miss. West Ham were giving the back line problems with balls over the top, and David Luiz was not enjoying his aerial duel with Andy Carroll. It was very easy to see a mistake costing Chelsea what would have been a highly annoying goal.
But fortunately, Eden Hazard decided to intervene. The Belgian is well out of his mid-season quiet spell and has re-emerged as one of the league's top players. Here is actual footage of what happened to West Ham's players whenever they went anywhere near him today:
Hazard decided to make life upsetting for the visitors in the 18th minute, hammering in a shot that Jaaskelainen barely managed to parry clear. The ball ended up going back to Victor Moses, and his attempt to cross was cleared as far as Hazard, who lurked on the edge of the box. Although West Ham's defenders tried to push up to restrict his options, Guy Demel failed to get the message and sat back, which left Lampard completely unmarked just in front of goal. The cross came in, and Lampard headed in.
That, of course, was his 200th Chelsea goal, leaving him two behind Bobby Tambling's all-time record. The header was worth of the milestone -- his movement into the box, his awareness of the visitors' organisation and his confident finish were all top notch. Oh, and it brought us 1-0 ahead.
Carroll came close to levelling almost immediately after Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta opted to allow Matt Jarvis to saunter through the defence and play in a cross for the former Newcastle man to attack. Carroll controlled and slotted past Petr Cech only to see his strike ruled out for pushing over David Luiz to get to the ball. He seemed surprised that a stiffarm in the small of the back while a defender's trying to jump might be penalised, but happily his opinion didn't amount to much.
Speaking of David Luiz, he was in a very good mood in the first half, looking dangerous going forward and coming close to scoring twice. Jaaskelainen made a meal of a low free kick in the 28th minute and a spectacular spinning volley just before the break didn't go far wide of the left post.
The centre back wasn't the only one threatening. Ba ended up through on goal no fewer than three times in the half and only some horrendous finishing prevented him from finding the back of the net. Moses and Mata both came close as well, and when halftime came there was still some worry that our profligacy in front of goal would come back to haunt us.
However, the break came with some good news. Firstly, Mohamed Diame, who was doing some mean things to the midfield, was withdrawn in favour of Mathew Taylor, who didn't really do much of anything. And second, Eden Hazard decided to go into super-Belgian mode.
He gave notice of his intentions when he decided to run past five West Ham defenders -- Joey O'Brien was humiliated twice just for fun -- before putting in a rabona cross for good measure, but that was nothing compared to what was to come. Mata gave him a dinked ball into the box, leaving him to ghost past two players and rifle into the bottom corner to make it 2-0.
With a multiple-goal cushion, Chelsea had given themselves room to coast, and coast they did. There were a couple of reasonably scary moments in front of Cech's goal, but it never looked as though his clean sheet would be seriously threatened. Jaaskelainen, on the other hand, looked unhappy, and for good reason: The Blues ended up with 24 shots of which eleven found the target.
At one point, Oscar was thrown in for Moses, which only made life harder for the visitors. By then, Chelsea were tearing apart West Ham's defence at will, and had the finishing been anything approaching competent the Blues would have ended up with four or five goals. As it was, however, 2-0 would be plenty. A late David Luiz injury aside, it was a thoroughly satisfying outing.
Although Sunday's game will mostly be remembered for Lampard's double century, there's a very real chances that this was Hazard's coming out party. We've seen good games from the Belgian before, but there was always something missing from his game -- his willingness to attack defenders. Today, we got that, and we got it in spades. Hazard was utterly unplayable and seemed to delight in toying with his opponents. It was an incredible display from a player who has it all. Eden Hazard is here.
Otherwise, finishing aside, it's nice to have a game in which everyone does well. Benitez's team selection was good, the players performance, and the Blues are back in the driver's seat in the Champions League race. Happy times.