José Mourinho and West Bromwich Albion's Tony Pulis are meant to be two of the most spectacularly stolid managers on the planet. Matches between the pair are supposed to be tight, nervy and borderline unwatchable for the neutral. In this strange season, however, nothing has gone quite according to plan, and Chelsea's trip to the Hawthorns -- where, it might be noted, they haven't won since Carlo Ancelotti was the manager -- veered far enough off the script that it, at times, turned into a slapstick comedy.
The Blues emerged triumphant, although that wasn't for a lack of trying. Thanks to the scoreline being as close as it was, the second-half red card to John Terry and the frankly atrocious start, this match looks a lot different from afar than it did up close. Fourteen minutes in, and Chelsea were screwed, about to go bottom of the league thanks to a James Morrison penalty. At halftime, they were were in cruise control. By the hour mark they were down to ten men and pegged back. For most of the rest of the game they were busy creating chances from nothing and then spurning them. And then they won 3-2.
Chelsea had not won a match, friendly or otherwise, since they beat FC Sydney 1-0 in May. The long drought had hardly been improved by scintillating play, either. A mediocre performance at home to Swansea was punished with a draw; a poor one at the Etihad the way poor games against Manchester City always go. We opened the match in the same sort of light. Slow, stodgy attacking was complemented by disorganised defending, which is hardly the recipe for success in the Premier League, and when Nemanja Matic brought down Callum McMannaman in the box the penalty felt like reaping the harvest of our general incompetence.
Thibaut Courtois, however, had other ideas. James Morrison insisted on taking the spot kick over objections from Chris Brunt, and fired a weak effort towards the Belgian's left. Courtois guessed right -- in fact he dived too far -- but he was alert enough to kick the ball to safety. The danger averted, Chelsea finally started playing.
Pedro, signed in the aftermath of the hammering at City, was brought to the team to provide something a little different to the industry of Willian and Oscar. Provide he did, exchanging passes with Eden Hazard before skipping into the box and firing past Boaz Myhill. That the finish required a substantial deflection off Jonas Olsson's ankle I think everyone was prepared to overlook.
Chelsea scored a more traditionally-worked goal shortly thereafter. Having thoroughly wasted a few counterattacking chances, everything suddenly clicked on a West Brom corner. The ball popped out for Cesar Azpilicueta, and rather than simply pushing the ball up the right flank he instead played a beautiful crossfield pass for Willian, who took it in his stride before finding Pedro with a nice diagonal. Since the corner, Diego Costa had been sprinting like a mobile, angry wrecking ball, and Pedro picked out his run with a cross that took Myhill completely out of the frame. All that was left was to slip into an empty net.
At 2-0 it looked as though the match have gotten away from the hosts, but that is to reckon without whatever awful curse the footballing gods have bestowed upon Chelsea. Possession was lost when Kurt Zouma fell over for no apparent reason, and although the first West Brom attack was dealt with very nicely, Cesc Fabregas then gave us another big problem by passing straight to a pinstriped shirt as soon as the ball was recovered.
The cross was overhit, but Salomon Rondon did superbly to hook the ball back to the centre, where the suspiciously unmarked Morrison made up for his penalty miss by striking low and hard through a tangle of legs and beyond Courtois.
Game on? Not for long. A hopeful punt forward from Fabregas found Costa, who managed to chest the ball to Azpilicueta despite Olsson's insistence in trying to pull him over. Nobody expected Azpilicueta to shoot from that position -- nobody expects Azpilicueta to shoot ever -- but he shot anyway, leaving Myhill rooted to the spot and Chelsea 3-1 to the good.
Between Morrison's penalty miss and Willian's absurd effort when set up by Pedro, both sides could easily have had more at halftime, but it was clear that Chelsea were in control and that something quite strange would have to happen to change the picture. Naturally, something strange happened nine minutes after the break.
Rondon had been merrily annoying Terry and Zouma all afternoon, and his persistence paid off when he caught out the captain and skipped onto a neat throughball. Terry gave the Venezuelan a little bump to prevent him going one on one against Courtois, Rondon went down in a heap and Mark Clattenburg was only too happy to pull out the red card, reducing the Blues to ten and turning what should have been a pleasant, if rainy, day at the Hawthorns into a far more stressful affair.
There was still a two-goal cushion to protect, so all was hardly lost. Willian was sacrificed for a masked defender who looked suspiciously like Gary Cahill, and although it was hardly the newcomer's fault we almost immediately saw said cushion reduced to one goal. Again, a cross from the right came in. And again the defence was found wanting, leaving Morrison to kiss the underside of the crossbar with a delightful and entirely accidental header.
3-2 with 10 men and half an hour to play is a thoroughly stressful experience, rendered even more stressful by the fact that Chelsea kept missing opportunities to make it 4-2. Diego Costa should have scored when Fabregas, awoken from his weeks-long nap, found him with a defence-splitting pass, but the finish was weak and the chance wasted. Costa's replacement, the shambling corpse of Radamel Falcao, then squirted wide after being set up by Pedro. And finally, Hazard beat what felt like the entire West Brom team several times over before fizzing a shot beyond the far post.
Fortunately Chelsea's attacking meant West Brom weren't really able to do much of the same, and although there were some nervy moments Courtois' goal was never again seriously threatened. The cushion was enough, and the Blues emerged from a fascinating match with their first win of the season.
We'll take it, but less stress next time would be nice.