Atlético Madrid's goalless draw against Qarabag in Azerbaijan a couple hours prior had set the stage for Chelsea. With a home win against Roma, the Blues would need to take only a couple more points from the remaining three matches in the group stage to guarantee a spot in the Champions League knockout rounds. Alas, in line with the club’s recent form, things didn’t quite go according to plan, with the visitors from the Italian capital overcoming a 2-0 deficit before the Stamford Bridge faithful were rewarded with an Eden Hazard equalizer for the sixth and final goal of the night. It was nothing less than the poor defensive showing from both teams deserved, though it was undoubtedly an entertaining 90 minutes for any neutral viewers.
Given the magnitude of the occasion and the ever-looming absence of N'Golo Kanté, Antonio Conte opted for the defensive variation of the 3-5-2, with David Luiz once again joining the midfield as the holding midfielder. Technically, he was supposed to be anchoring the sector, staying behind Tiemoué Bakayoko and Cesc Fàbregas, but he would often free himself from these shackles and play recklessly up high the pitch (especially after his goal and injury). As before, Andreas Christensen was picked to play in David’s usual position, in between the usual center backs César Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill. We also welcomed striker Álvaro Morata back into the fold, ready to resume his fruitful relationship with Eden Hazard.
Roma, who also had a few injury scares in the build-up to the match, were short their best defender in Kostas Manolas, with the far less impressive Federico Fazio and Juan Jesus filling into for him. Winger Stephan El Shaarawy, who has been one of Roma's main attacking outlets since the departure of Mohamed Salah to Liverpool, was also not in the starting line-up, but was an option off the bench for manager Eusebio Di Francesco. In the Italian international’s place, Brazilian youngster Gerson got the start.
From the get-go, Roma made their intentions clear. They would take the initiative, pressing high with a high defensive line and pushing both their wing-backs, Kolarov and Peres, as far forward as possible. Chelsea seemed well prepared for this however, and did not get let Roma cause too much trouble outside of a few tame runs and shots from winger Diego Perotti.
Although Roma were not as successful in creating good chances as they might have hoped, they were quite effective in preventing Chelsea from building from the back. In doing so, they became the latest in an increasingly long series of teams to be able to force their will on Chelsea by pressing our backline. Thibaut Courtois finished the first half with the most touches on Chelsea — and the third most at full time — as our defenders often simply could not find a forward pass.
But when we did find passes forward, good opportunities duly followed. With Roma pushing high up the pitch, Chelsea had plenty of space to attack on the counters. It took just five minutes to work a fantastic opening for Álvaro Morata, which he unfortunately shot straight into Roma goalkeeper Alisson.
Chelsea second meaningful attack was much more successful however.
It was a bit of a pinball goal, coming after a foul drawn by Morata near Roma’s box and a free kick taken by Cesc that instead resulted in an opportunity for midfielder and ad eternum Chelsea transfer target Radja Nainggolan to attempt to catch Chelsea on the break. He failed to get out of the swarm of blue shirts around him however, with David Luiz picking up the ball and turning upfield. His initial pass into Morata was rejected, but the rebound sat up juicily. The crowd went shoooot and David obliged with a most beautiful effort to beat Alisson and open the scoring.
The goal allowed Chelsea to continue executing the gameplan as drawn up, sitting deep and looking to hit Roma on the break. And until David Luiz picked up an injury in the 25th minute, it was indeed working well. After what’s turned out to be a minor calf injury, David Luiz’s influence waned, and spaces started opening up. Chelsea would be made to pay for these sorts of spaces later, but first, we needed to establish “the most dangerous lead of 2-0”.
After Courtois made crucial interventions of on shots from Perotti (twice) and Nainggolan (once), Chelsea seized on a terrible midfield giveaway from the vistors.
Bruno Peres gifted the ball to Hazard, who turned upfield before playing Morata. The striker’s attempt was deflected back into Hazard’s path, who finished well from a tight angle.
However, Chelsea's two-goal lead would not last more than two minutes, with the Blues answering Roma’s midfield giveaway by parting like the Red Sea in front of the ageless Aleksandar Kolarov, whose shot also deflected off Christensen’s attempted block. Courtois was left with no chance.
Roma almost tied the game on their ensuing attacking play — Alonso did well to shield the ball from Gerson after a fantastic Perotti cross — then Chelsea almost re-established a two-goal lead from a fantastic Zappacosta cross.
It remained 2-1 at the half.
The second half began almost exactly as the first ended, with Roma pushing up and Chelsea cushioning all the pressure. But eventually the crack started to show in the home fortress, and Ballon d’Or nominee Edin Dzeko started waking up from his slumber. Dzeko scored 39 goals in all competitions last season, and after today’s brace, now has 10 in 10 games this season.
Of the six goals total on the night, Dzeko’s first was undoubtedly the most impressive. It was a perfect combination of the perfect pass, the perfect run, and the perfect finish — with a perfectly passive Chelsea defence (pressure on Fazio? staying with Dzeko’s run?) enabling it all. Frank Lampard in the BT Sport studios was in awe of Dzeko’s finish, which is surely an early contender for some sort of best-goal award.
Chelsea had switched out of the 3-5-2 to a more proactive 3-4-3 by then, but it was Roma who reaped the rewards of Pedro’s introduction for the ailing and undisciplined David Luiz (who was playing, in theory anyway, in the midfield position requiring the most discipline). Perhaps Chelsea would’ve been able to keep Roma at bay were it not for David Luiz’s shenanigans, perhaps not. We’ll never know.
What we do know that after Dzeko’s equalizer, Roma kept up the pressure and laid siege to the Chelsea defence. Still, it needed more defensive errors from Chelsea to put the visitors into the lead, starting with a cheap free-kick given away by Bakayoko (again!), and some horrendous marking on the ensuing free kick.
From 2-0 down to 2-3 up, Roma had the advantage in momentum and the advantage on the scoreboard as Stamford Bridge stared on in incredulous disbelief. Fortunately for the home side, Roma kept to their previous gameplan instead of shutting up shop, and with the 3-4-3 showing a bit of life finally, Chelsea took advantage.
After five goals scored from defensive mistakes, it was only fitting that a sixth would arrive under similar conditions. This time, it was Eden Hazard who was left completely unmarked in the middle of the area. And thus we reached Hazard headed-goal levels of weirdness on the night.
Following Hazard's goal to tie the game, Conte introduced Antonio Rüdiger for Zappacosta and Willian for Hazard in an apparent attempt to tighten up the defence for the final 15 minutes. But it didn’t matter as both Dzeko and Rüdiger wasted clear cut chances to find a winner. It was more through luck than any sense of organization or planning that the game ended without any more goals going in at either end.
So, Chelsea settle for the point and put an end to the two-game losing streak, but remain winless in three straight. Atlético’s draw in Azerbaijan means that the Blues remain in control of the group, but the reverse of this game in a fortnight looms large.
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