Chelsea dominated the entire 90 minutes of Wednesday’s Premier League encounter at Stamford Bridge, but were only able to turn that advantage into a narrow 1-0 win over relegation candidates Swansea City. A second-half effort by centre back Antonio Rüdiger, his first ever Premier League goal, proved the be the only difference on the scoresheet as Chelsea kept pace with the rest of the top five.
The busy fixture list prompted Antonio Conte into making a few changes to the usual lineup, including a switch back to the 3-4-3, rest for Eden Hazard, and a return for Cesc Fàbregas. But the most shocking change of all was César Azpilicueta on the bench for a Premier League match for the first time in almost two years. Azpilicueta had played every single minute of every single Premier League game for Conte, plus a few more — 74 straight starts in fact — but he was only on the bench with eventual goalscorer Rüdiger deputizing at right centre back.
Swansea were unchanged from their 0-0 draw over the weekend, packing the midfield and the defense with centre backs and centre midfielders — Ki Sung-Yueng, Roque Mesa and Tom Carroll behind
20-year-old Renato Sanches some dude who’s never played football in his life — in an attempt to keep Chelsea out. This largely involved sitting deep and rarely moving past the halfway line. Having scored only 7 goals in 13 matches — one goal less than Morata alone — and with Tammy Abraham, who has 4 of those goals, ineligible, Swansea had an obvious goal and plan to achieve it. Wilfried Bony’s thankless task of chasing down a few long balls was only made more fruitless by an absolute lack of support or quality behind him.
With Swansea deep, narrow and missing most of their passes forward whenever not just turning the ball over, Chelsea were given space to settle into the game and start a game-long siege of Lukasz Fabianski's goal. The absence of Hazard shifted the creative burden wholly onto Fàbregas, although Willian was also incisive with some of his forays forward, and both wing-backs had the freedom of either wing to do whatever they pleased.
With plenty of space to operate out wide and deep in midfield, there wasn’t much space to be found inside or around the box. Still, Chelsea created plenty of opportunities and half-opportunities, all of which required saving by Fabianski (who finished with 9 saves) or key defensive actions from “massive Chelsea fan” Alfie Mawson (who finished with 14 clearances).
Swansea’s efforts at keeping a clean sheet were helped to a great extent by referee Neil Swarbrick, who seemed to make more bad calls than good ones, including two missed first-half penalty shouts (Morata being dragged down by his shoulders and Alonso getting taken out from behind) and a hilarious goal kick award after Mawson deflected the ball wide for a corner. Swarbrick also allowed Swansea to take ages with every dead ball and restart without repercussions, and combined with the terrible goal kick call, sent Conte over the edge.
Conte had already been a vociferous presence at the sidelines, constantly complaining to fourth referee Les Mason about Swarbrick's mistakes. Mason apparently couldn’t take it anymore and called Swarbrick over, who sent Conte to the stands in a show of power. A seat behind the bench wasn’t even enough; Conte eventually made his way down the tunnel to take in the rest of the game from the dressing room.
Still, Conte was probably happy with his team’s first-half efforts, if not quite with the quality of finishing — the Blues had 11 shots, 8 on target, with 7 corners (vs. zeros across the board for Swansea) through 45 minutes.
Swansea manager Paul Clement decided to spare himself from further heartburn and Renato Sanches from further personal embarrassment by withdrawing him for the second half. The Euro 2016 winner was replaced by Leroy Fer, whom we might remember from scoring a goal after fouling Gary Cahill in last year’s 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium.
Fer may have exceeded the very low bar set by Sanches, but his entrance did not change the shape of the game at all. If anything, Chelsea returned to the task of finding a breakthrough with even great relish in the second half.
Chelsea kept up the pressure, stayed patient — to which quality Conte paid tribute after the match as well — and eventually forced an opening goal. It needed a deflection, sure, but Antonio Rüdiger’s reaction to head in Kanté’s shot was impressive.
Chelsea pushed for a second, but without a drastic difference in quality from either side, it was not to be. Chelsea’s domination remained clear, even as Swans managed their first shot in the game in the 65th minute and their first corner 5 minutes later.
But 1-0 is the most dangerous lead, and even the worst teams are likely to get a real chance or two. And so it was that following young Oliver McBurnie’s introduction, the visitors actually had a sniff at Courtois’s goal. The introduction of a very rusty and out of sync Victor Moses, playing for the first time in almost two months, opened up opportunities for fellow substitue Wayne Routledge to create a dangerous situation or two, including a telling cross that on another day finds a white-shirted head and the back of the net.
But Chelsea held out strong, while switching to a 3-5-2 for the final ten minutes and getting Hazard and Drinkwater to stretch their legs with 10-minute cameos. A third clean sheet in four games for Courtois is a welcome trend.
Southampton almost made this Wednesday a great day for every Premier League outfit, as they almost held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw at the Etihad. But for about the fifth time this season, Raheem Sterling popped up with a late winner to maintain the status quo at the top of the table. City are now just one game from matching Chelsea’s 13-match winning streak from last season.
All Chelsea can do in the meantime is keep winning as well. Job done against Swansea. Newcastle next.
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