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Chelsea crash out of League Cup with semi-disappointing loss to West Ham United

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Chelsea’s League Cup adventure ends for another season with a 2-1 loss at the London Stadium.

West Ham United v Chelsea - EFL Cup Fourth Round Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

I’m not going to knock the League Cup. It’s a fun tournament, and one in which Chelsea have a strong history. A competitive match is a competitive match, and losing is never fun. This wasn’t a reserve game.

That said: thank goodness this match happened in the League Cup and against West Ham United rather than in the Premier League against the Mancunian flavour of unity. Chelsea getting knocked out a round after the heist job they pulled off at Leicester City last month certainly stings, but after a pretty reasonable performance and some hellacious luck, it’s not going to take the shine off what happened on Sunday.

So whenever you come across a passage of this match report that induces sadness (let’s start: Chelsea lost 2-1 at West Ham’s Soulless Warehouse and are out of the League Cup), just remember that we pasted Jose Mourinho and Manchester United three days ago. It’ll make you feel better.

Antonio Conte opted for some major midweek rotation. Both wingbacks and the whole front line were rested, and the N’Golo Kante-Nemanja Matic duo was broken up, with the latter rested entirely. Three Academy players came on to make up the numbers, as did Willian and Oscar, returning from compassionate leave in Brazil. Up front, Michy Batshuayi took a break from watching Spongebob Squarepants and crafting :fire: tweets to play some football*.

*Kind of.

The match began with some promise. Ola Aina, playing on the left, did brilliantly to win a corner early on, and Kante nearly repeated his Sunday heroics shortly thereafter, weaving through a mess of claret and blue and unleashing a curling shot which was, alas, far too close to goalkeeper Darren Randolph. And then ... things went less well.

Nathaniel Chalobah, who combined some excellent work with some unfortunate errors, made one of the latter in midfield, leaving the ball for Kante and letting West Ham seize possession. The situation would have been pretty easily recovered, however, had it not been for a spectacularly poor tackle from returning captain John Terry, which somehow contrived to win the ball cleanly without actually dispossessing his opponent.

Gary Cahill entered a rather more robust challenge on Michail Antonio to concede a free kick, which was well cleared for a corner that unfortunately led directly to a goal. It probably shouldn’t have — West Ham recovered a loose ball and Mark Noble swung in a hopeful cross to Cheikhou Kouyate at the edge of the box, which is nothing to make most defences tremble — but Kouyate beat Terry to the delivery and produced a brilliant headed finish to send the Hammers 1-0 up.

West Ham United v Chelsea - EFL Cup Fourth Round Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

They’d never relinquish that lead, although not for lack of trying.

The remainder of the first half produced a flurry of bad defending at both ends. Chalobah attempted to make up for his peripheral involvement in the opener by grabbing his first Chelsea goal, and came closer than he had any right to with a 35-yard howitzer which Randolph just tipped over the crossbar. At the other end, Dmitri Payet did a number on Asmir Begovic’s water bottle with a smartly-taken snapshot, nearly taking advantage of some poor communication at the back.

The best chance of the half came to Batshuayi after some neat combination play in midfield. Willian sent Oscar scurrying away down the left, and Oscar’s first-time pass further unravelled West Ham’s defence, leaving Batshuayi clear on goal with Randolph completely exposed. So he missed, obviously. Oscar then avenged Begovic’s water bottle by taking out Randolph’s, a precise strike that would have made us all feel better if it had been aimed inside the post instead.

Being 1-0 down at halftime wasn’t exactly optimal, but it was hardly a disaster. Chelsea had probably shaded the balance of play, and going down to a bullet header from 16 yards out and then missing all of your own chances is something that happens from time to time. There was every reason to believe that the Hammers would cough up chances.

And so the second half began with positive, albeit wary vibes. Chelsea fans around the world were probably thinking along the lines of “there’s plenty of time as long as West Ham don’t score aga-” when they in fact did score again. Like Kouyate’s goal, this felt like it came from nowhere, probably because it was a long range shot by whoever the heck Edimilson Fernandes is. It counted despite the surprise factor, and the Blues found themselves in a 2-0 hole.

Conte decided to make an effort to salvage the match. On came Diego Costa (for Batshuayi — no ‘4-2-4’ here), Pedro (as a wing-back!) and Eden Hazard. With the additional firepower plus the Hammers sitting back and defending their lead, Chelsea seemed to find a second gear, generating chance after chance and somehow failing to convert them.

First, Oscar hit the post with a neat flick from a corner which we would have been talking about for years had it gone in. In a noble act of symmetry restoration, the other upright was kissed by Hazard somewhat later -- the fans probably have preferred he score instead, but I think we can all admit that symmetry is very important.

The Blues were denied twice by the woodwork, but those weren’t their best chances to score, nor were they close. It was Willian who spurned the most glorious opening of the evening, completely wasting a 70-yard David Luiz pass which Diego Costa had brought down for an easy layoff. Willian had time to take a touch, which he did, and then he mis-hit his shot so badly I’m not convinced he knew which foot he was using.

West Ham United v Chelsea - EFL Cup Fourth Round Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Perhaps frustrated by watching his compatriot waste an easy assist, Costa repaid the favour by turning a clever Willian through ball into a goal kick, steering his attempted dink wide of the near post. If there’s a shot that looks stupider when it doesn’t work than the one-on-one dink, I’ve yet to encounter it. Costa certainly seemed to think it was pretty stupid.

Chelsea, then, had generated enough good chances on their to come back from a 4-0 deficit, let alone a 2-0 one. West Ham weren’t just the beneficiaries of implausible finishing, however. They also had some extremely favourable refereeing. A plausible penalty was turned down when Reid handled as Oscar controlled in the box early in the half, but worse was to come when the Hammers captain took out Hazard’s legs without getting anywhere near the ball. It was a penalty so clear that it might have counted for two, but it was totally ignored. Perhaps Craig Pawson thought that we’d miss it and wanted to spare us the embarrassment.

Even when the goal came, it came at a time when it did no good to anyone at all. Cahill, who’d had a mixed game alongside John Terry (who didn’t) in defence, turned the last touch of the match past Randolph to make it 2-1, but by then it was clearly too little too late to save the tie.