Fifteen months ago, the second Jose Mourinho era kicked off with a 2-0 home win against Hull City. Today, we got more of the same. It even comes with the same caveats -- we were good enough to win in bursts and spurts, but the performance wasn't there all match, and a better side would have punished us -- as last season's win, but in a crowded December the points matter more than the play, and we can be pleased that we've kept our three-point advantage atop the table.
For a little while it looked as though the match might be a rout. Eden Hazard had the Blues ahead within seven minutes of kickoff, albeit in extremely strange fashion. John Obi Mikel won the ball by probably-illegal means, stamping on Sone Aluko's foot and leaving the Tigers forward crumpled in a heap in midfield, and he pinged the ball forward to Oscar. The Brazilian looked up, saw Hazard making a run into the box, and lofted a perfect cross between the visitors' centre backs.
It was all too easy for Hazard to jump up and power home a running header. Yes, he has scored for us with his head before, a goal from point-blank range at the Hawthorns, but this was a real finish, a proper salmon-leap from the little winger. And it had a startling effect on the match. Michael Dawson couldn't handle such an odd sight and quitted the field immediately, and both Mikel and Nemanja Matic were shocked into insensibility for the rest of the half, wandering willy-nilly around the place and passing to nobody in particular.
Naturally this had an adverse effect on Chelsea's play, because without cohesion in midfield they couldn't hold the ball for nearly as long as it takes to break down a deep-lying and thoroughly curmudgeonly defence. Hull, meanwhile, pounced on each and every mistake the Blues made in the centre of the pitch, wasting good positions with the enthusiasm and unwatchability of a six-year-old with a trumpet.
The ugliness of the first period ended up distilled into one very silly Gary Cahill challenge. Lunging in on the unfortunate Aluko after a heavy touch, the defender avoided seeing red only because he missed the tackle with his front foot and caught the Hull man with his trailing leg. It was a lucky break, and Nikica Jelavic followed up by helpfully tooting the free kick straight into the wall.
Better was expected after the break, but Mikel did his best to make sure that we didn't get it, bringing down David Meyler in a dangerous position just outside the box. Indeed, the second half -- at least the early going -- was more difficult watching than the first, because Chris Foy completely lost control of the match. Fouls were dives. Dives were nothing*. Kickings were going unpunished. It was all deeply weird, and tempers were flaring to the point where a red card seemed inevitable.
*You're a lucky boy, Gary Cahill
I suppose that it going to Tom Huddlestone rather than one of our lot was a small miracle, but Filipe Luis surely didn't think that the midfielder's challenge, a balefully malevolent stamp on his exposed right knee, was particularly miraculous. Huddlestone was already on a booking when he staged his botched attempt at amputation (fortunately Luis bounced to his feet relatively unharmed), but was shown a straight red for the tackle and left for an early bath on a dismissal-and-a-half.
Foy wasn't done there. With Chelsea looking for a second goal to kill off the match, Hull were given the unprecedented boost of being allowed a second goalkeeper. Alex Chester smothering Willian's cross was actually quite impressive, if only for its brazenness, but that it wasn't a penalty was thoroughly inexplicable.
The home crowd was upset by this development, but frayed nerves were soon stitched back together by a cameo from Diego Costa, who'd been absent for much of the game but popped up with an important goal eight minutes past the hour mark. Hazard was the one who made it, slipping a delightful reverse ball into the centre forward's pass, but there was still plenty of work to do.
So Costa did it. Off-balance, with a defender so close behind him it was a virtual molestation, and shooting from a tight angle to boot, he rolled the ball past Allen MacGregor and in at the far post. Game, set and match.
With the result no longer in any sort of doubt, the Blues were happy to take their foot off the gas and let Hull hurl themselves uselessly at the defence. Petr Cech, in for the injured Thibaut Courtois, had little to do all game apart from royally mess up a punch, and that didn't change in the final minutes despite the visitors being allowed to go forward. It was, in other words, an efficient Chelsea performance rather than a scintillating one, but with the crowded fixture list this time of year, I very much doubt that Jose Mourinho minds one bit.