Alternative headline: It’s a good thing Hull are so awful, or this game might have been sort of stressful.
With most of the rest of the top six dropping points this weekend, Hull’s visit to Stamford Bridge represented a beautiful chance for Chelsea to cement their position atop the Premier League. Three points against the Tigers, who’ve spent their whole season in free-fall and waiting for the sweet release of
death relegation, would extend their lead on the chasing pack to eight points. That seemed like a simple enough task.
But while the preceding fixtures represented a glorious opportunity, they should also have been a bright and shiny warning sign to the Blues. Liverpool lost a home game against bottom club Swansea. Manchester United had to rely on a last-gasp worldie to claim a point against Stoke. Arsenal nearly managed to blow it against a Burnley side whose total away points can be summed up on one finger. In football, nothing is easy.
It wasn’t easy for Chelsea either. Hull, who started our 13-game winning streak back in October, and were without Robert Snodgrass, should have been there for the taking. They turned out to be no such thing. Barring an early attempt from Diego Costa that drifted just wide, the product of a long punt forward from David Luiz within seconds of kickoff, for much of the first half the only damage the Blues seemed capable of doing was to the unfortunate Ryan Mason.
After a sickening clash of heads with Gary Cahill, the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder found himself splayed out on the turf, surrounded by medical staff and having oxygen dumped frantically into his system. The attendants took a full seven minutes to get him off the ground, onto a stretcher and off the field, sapping the life out of the match and forcing Hull into an early substitution.
The play itself was mostly frustrating. Whenever Chelsea had a chance to break forward, a pass went astray or a cynical foul ended the move. Within half an hour, two of the visitors’ centre back trio had found themselves cautioned, and Curtis Davies was lucky not to have picked up a second after sending Pedro flying with a wild tackle just outside the box. The Blues had reason not only to be angry at Neil Swarbrick but his assistant as well after Diego Costa had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside.
But when the opener came, it was Hull who were furious with the officiating. Abel Hernandez was bustled out of possession by Gary Cahill and was still complaining about the lack of a whistle when the ball was fizzed wide to Victor Moses. Chelsea had been guilty of too many hit-and-hope high crosses against a Tigers defence whose main redeeming feature is height, so this time Moses went low, threading a thicket of bodies to find Costa 10 yards out. His first time effort beat Eldin Jakupovic easily, and the Blues were 1-0 up.
Costa had plenty to say with his celebration, but probably not as much as Antonio Conte did at halftime. Apart from the goal and a neat low ball from Marcos Alonso that just evaded N’Golo Kante in the six yard box, Chelsea had created nowhere near enough against one of the league’s worst teams. Granted, they were 1-0 up and the visitors’ only attacking threat was Harry Maguire, a centre back, but the performance, while dominant to a degree, was also highly frustrating.
Something had to change in the second half. But rather than dropping the ‘frustrating’, Chelsea dispensed with dominance instead. Shortly after the restart, Marcos Alonso committed a foul on Hernandez so ridiculous that Swarbrick probably couldn’t believe his eyes. I’m not sure there’s any other excuse for him not awarding a penalty after seeing the Hull man given the sort of kick that you’d normally associate with Charlie Adam or Phil Bardsley.
But Chelsea got away with it, and they’d continue to get away with pretty much everything for the rest of the match. Hull were flooding the midfield with bodies, giving Kante and Nemanja Matic far too much to do, and neither Hazard nor Pedro seemed particularly inclined to help out. Tom Huddlestone in particular was causing problems, controlling the tempo of the match with nary a blue shirt to bother him.
Ceding the initiative and control to the opposition while clinging onto a 1-0 lead is normally a recipe for disaster, but since Hull are absolutely terrible (and, remember, were Snodgrass-less), they failed to even carve one clear chance out of their time in the ascendence. Even so, Conte was clearly vexed by his side’s lack of energy, switching to a 3-5-2 with Willian and Cesc Fabregas on for the wide forwards 71 minutes in.
The substitutions did not have the desired effect immediately, probably because Willian kept giving the ball away, but eventually the tide turned, and both newcomers played a role in Chelsea’s second. David Meyler, who’d entered the match as Mason’s replacement, opted to foil a counterattack by hacking down Willian on the left (a better option might have been to let him try to pass),
picking up a yellow card for his troubles (ed.note: LOL, Swarbrick’d) and giving the Blues a dangerous free kick.
Up stepped Fabregas; up ran Cahill. The captain hadn’t emerged unscathed from his earlier encounter with Ryan Mason’s head — for the first few seconds it seemed as if the medical staff were more worried about the Chelsea man than the Hull one — but he’d long since shaken that off, and his header, powerful and fearless, was enough to end any anxiety about the outcome.
The final ten minutes were relatively uneventful, although Costa could and probably should have made it 3-0 after a very smart pass from Fabregas. A three-goal win would scarcely have been deserved after a laboured performance (two was flattering enough), but if Chelsea are going to have bad days, which they are, it’s important that they take points despite themselves. Working out the kinks against Hull is better than getting flattened by Liverpool or Arsenal, after all.
In other words: Improvement necessary, but job done. Bring on Josh McEachran and Brentford.