“Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again.”
-Douglas Adams, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Against Liverpool, the Blues went 1-0 up only to cough up both the lead and the points. Against Burnley, the Blues went 1-0 up only to cough up both the lead and the points. And going into halftime against Swansea, Chelsea supporters had seen their side go up 1-0 early only to cough up the lead under less than zero pressure. It’s perhaps churlish to complain about the football we’re getting after last year, but the script we’ve been following of late was getting monotonous.
The nature of the first half made the equaliser particularly galling. The visitors were barely in the game, reduced to a Pulisesque deep line and a prayer or eight. There was not the least hint that Swansea might score before the break -- you might have announced several years of stoppage time and nobody would have put money on anything but nil for the Swans at halftime. And then, in the 47th minute of a 46-minute half, it was 1-1.
At least Robbie Brady’s free kick at Turf Moor was a strike of uncommon quality. Between the arc of his strike and the pleasant silver lining that the foul itself had come from Joey Barton being kicked in the bollocks, getting pegged back by Burnley didn’t feel quite as bad at it might have. This time there were no redeeming factors. A straight free kick from the centre circle found Fernando Llorente’s head*, and Llorente, under no pressure, guided the ball past Thibaut Courtois and in.
*He was being ‘marked’ by Victor Moses, a process that appeared to involve the wingback standing near his man for a while and then, as the soon as the ball had been played, fleeing like a frightened antelope spotting a lioness.
Which is to say that the halftime team talk would have been fun.
It is, however, slightly unfair on Chelsea to focus on what went wrong today, which basically constituted a second or two of switching off on a set piece taken after the first half was supposed to have ended. Until then, the Blues had been more than good enough to be confident in an easy win, supremely assured off the ball and constantly threatening a stretched Swansea defence. Let’s rewind a little.
Cesc Fabregas, recalled to the starting lineup at Nemanja Matic’s expense, was at the heart of that threat. On the day that Chelsea finally invited Frank Lampard back to Stamford Bridge, Fabregas put in a fitting tribute, connecting defence to attack and then causing chaos with smart, untrackable runs into the box.
It was Fabregas who claimed the opener, winning possession inside the visitors’ half and releasing Eden Hazard to drive forwards. Diego Costa got involved, using his strength to hold off both Federico Fernandez and Alfie Mawson and allowing Hazard to feed Pedro inside the Swansea area. With the visitors backpedalling, Pedro picked out his compatriot, who took a touch the put him past two white shirt and then fired off a snapshot which nutmegged Jack Cork and left Lukasz Fabianski helpless.
He nearly repeated the trick ten minutes later after a scuffed Costa shot found Moses, whose cross was plucked from the sky by Fabregas’s right boot only for Fabianski to produce an acrobatic save to keep it at 1-0. The two Fabregas attempts neatly framed a moment which came quite close to being one of the all-time great own goals when Kyle Naughton’s attempted backpass completely wrongfooted his keeper and forced a scrambling kick save just before the ball crept in at the far post.
While there weren’t too many more clean chances for the Blues to extend their lead, Swansea were being kept at bay without the defence having to break a sweat. The closest they came to threatening came when a loose touch from David Luiz set Llorente free, but N’Golo Kante teleported in to clean up before the striker even realised he had an opening to drive at Courtois.
1-0, however, is always a dangerous scoreline, and Chelsea were courting disaster by failing to make their dominance count. Disaster duly arrived, and the Blues found themselves with it all to do in the second half.
They might have scored twice in the first five minutes. A smart dummy from Hazard opened up space for Fabregas to feed the Belgian in shooting position, but Fabianski dove to his right to keep Hazard’s low strike from finding the corner. The Swansea goalkeeper was rather more helpless for Chelsea’s next chance: this time the visitors found themselves bailed out by the crossbar as Fabregas looked for his second.
Those two chances seemed like they might be the harbinger of a true Chelsea onslaught, but the threatened storm petered out, and for the next 20 minutes or so it seemed as though we might be living through a replay of the limp attacking display at Burnley. Oh no, not again indeed.
We were rescued by Fabianski. The former Arsenal man was responsible for two great saves earlier in the match, but his attempt to keep out Pedro’s long-range strike was utterly pathetic. Found by Fabregas with a nothing ball, Pedro did well to turn into space, but his curling effort seemed destined for an easy save before phasing through Fabianski’s hands, dodging underneath his body and reappearing in the back of the net. Through minimal fault of their own, the Blues were back on top.
This time they would not relinquish their lead. Matic was thrown on for Pedro as Chelsea switched to 3-5-2 to see the game out, and it was his driving runs forward that led to the third goal, with Costa making the game safe with a clever volley after excellent work from first Matic and then Hazard. With the game essentially over 84 minutes in, the only question was whether the Blues could rack up a few more goals, but despite a few spurned half-chances they’d never seriously threaten to score again. Not that they needed to — what matters at this stage of the season is the points, and the points were secure.