If football matches were 75 minutes long, this match report might not ever have been written. After three matches of promising play, Chelsea put in an abject performance. The midfield and defence were in a state of permanent pandemonium, the attackers were finding dizzying new heights of toothlessness and we'd managed to spot Newcastle United -- that's winless, woefully abject Newcastle United -- a 2-0 lead.
It wasn't a fresh hell, but it was rather thoroughly alarming. The Magpies crushed the Nemanja Matic-Cesc Fabregas partnership in the centre, were first to every second ball and didn't have to do anything at all against a completely static forward line. Chelsea were outpossessed and outfought, and by midway through the first half it was reasonably clear that hideous ruin and combustion was imminent.
Since we were playing against Newcastle, said combustion had to be self-inflicted. Ayoze Perez and Aleksandar Mitrovic had some chances, forcing Asmir Begovic into a decent save or two, but until the 42nd minute there was no moment of abject, intestinal panic. And then Kurt Zouma happened.
I like Kurt Zouma. He's a fine young player who cannot be praised highly enough for his combination of athleticism and diligence. But even for a young centre back, he has his flaws, and one of those flaws is his freakish inability to judge balls in flight. This manifests itself most often in mis-timed jumps, but this time we got to see something weirder.
Vurnon Anita was on the Chelsea left and feathered in a fairly hopeless, standard diagonal. Zouma's job as the right centre back is to head clear. It's a bread and butter play for a defender. He was on the correct side of Perez and the ball was up in the air long enough to attack it properly. But instead of going after it, Zouma stepped under the ball and then ... stopped.
Here is an artist's interpretation of how the goal looked:
Perez, gifted possession by the madness, managed to navigate a kick up the ass from Branislav Ivanovic to smash his shot in off the goalpost. Crisis resumed.
The second half felt better, at least to start. Chelsea were pouring forward, pinning their hosts deep and doing their best impression of a competent football team. But although they looked likelier to score*, they were always vulnerable to the counterattack. Eden Hazard, whose skippy-dippy runs made a welcome reappearance here, was stopped at the edge of the Newcastle box; the resulting break turned into a corner for the Magpies.
*Loic Remy had a nice chance from a cross, but his header was well saved by Tim Krul and he was offside anyway.
From that corner, disaster. For reasons unknown, Fabregas let Georginio Wijnaldum, whose name I hope never to have to spell again, run unmarked into the six-yard box. The result was suboptimal, leaving Chelsea staring at a 2-0 deficit in this fixture for the third straight season.
Jose Mourinho's response was to throw on Willian, Ramires and Radmel Falcao, which looked like a mildly silly idea until suddenly it didn't. Falcao provided some hints that there was life yet in the Blues when he latched onto Ramires' pass and went one-on-one with Kurl, but, like Remy's earlier chance, was stopped by the combination of Krul and the linesman. In the moment, it felt like the farcical cherry on the turd cake. But, in hindsight, the way Newcastle's defence was opened up hinted of hope that the match was not yet over.
Obviously Falcao wasn't going to be the one cashing in on that hope. But Ramires, who knows a thing or two about starting comebacks, was on the pitch, and he duly delivered. The goal came from nothing. Hazard miscontrolled a long pass from Zouma and was forced to lay the ball off to Ramires in the centre. Ramires, perhaps convinced that nobody else was going to do anything useful, opted for the shot and ripped an absolute screamer into the top corner.
2-1 felt a lot less depressing than 2-0. Chelsea were back in the match, while Newcastle were desperately holding on. Pedro should have equalised after an exquisite delivery from Fabregas -- by now the only central midfielder on the pitch and wearing a fetching white bandage -- set him through against Krul, but his composure abandoned him and he blazed 10 yards over the bar.
The Blues weren't done, however, and the equaliser arrived with time to spare. It was a weird goal for a weird match, but that didn't make it any less joyous. Willian won a free kick after a foul by Moussa Sissoko, and his delivery was perfect. Ramires could have got a touch to the cross, but he missed it, and Krul, who was preparing for a header, couldn't react in time to prevent the ball from creeping in.
The comeback might have turned into something more a few minutes later from a similar situation, but this time Ramires did get a touch to it and Krul turned up with a very good save. That proved to be the last big chance of the game, and the 2-2 draw felt much more like a point gained rather than two dropped. Questions will be asked about the dismal performance until Ramires saved the day, but at least there's a bit more of a feel-good factor about this one than there might have been otherwise.