After a long and hard-fought season chasing a title that they weren’t even supposed to contend for, let alone run away with, Chelsea needed just one win in the final three games to earn Champions status. Last night, ever-stubborn West Brom, managed by an even more stubborn Tony Pulis, stood in the way, hoping to spoil any celebrations. As inevitable as Chelsea’s Premier League title was, just as inevitable was the Baggies’ defiance to make the Blues wait until at least Monday for it.
The game wore on, and chances were few and far between. Eden Hazard was poor, Pedro spent his time dribbling aimlessly around the opposition’s penalty box and Diego Costa was short of any supply. A boring 0-0 draw was looking more and more likely as the clock kept ticking. Chelsea’s travelling support were getting ready to head home disappointed. Until the unlikeliest of heroes donned his cape, and secured a fifth Premier League title for the Blues.
“Everybody is happy. This is the best day for Chelsea. I want the trophy today. This is the best moment in my footballing life, for sure.”
-Michy Batshuayi; source: Mail
When Antonio Conte made a double substitution at the 75th minute mark, there was some surprise. Hazard and Pedro were replaced by Willian and Michy Batshuayi — a bold move not only in terms of taking off a Player of the Year front-runner in Hazard, the player most capable of producing a moment of magic on the team, but bringing on Batshuayi, scorer of a solitary Premier League goal, all the way back in August. With Chelsea desperate for one goal, this was not the obvious move.
It has been a difficult campaign for the Belgian striker. Coming off an impressive season in Ligue 1 with Marseille where he scored 17 goals, Michy arrived in England with a sense of intrigue surrounding him. Chelsea valued him highly, paying out £32 million to acquire his services ahead of fellow Londoners Crystal Palace, West Ham, and Tottenham.
Despite starting well at Stamford Bridge, where he scored a goal in the 2-1 win over Watford and was credited with an assist for Diego Costa’s late winner against West Ham, he was unable to consistently produce similar impact. His success in early rounds of cup competitions, where he managed four goals, did not translate to more minutes or goals in the league, and it quickly became a frustrating debut season for the 23-year-old. Even in the rare enforced absences of Diego Costa, Conte turned to Hazard and Pedro instead to lead line as Batshuayi watched from the sidelines. Talk of a move away from the club gathered pace in January but came to nothing. A quite fortunate development then, as Michy would go on to make his impact felt on a couple occasions late in the season.
Michy was a starter during Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final win over arch-rivals Tottenham at Wembley. Though he didn’t hit the back of the net on that occasion, he still made a nuisance of himself for the defence, and had a big hand in Chelsea’s opening goal, reminding everyone for the first time in a long time of the qualities that once made Chelsea pay over the odds for him. The games which followed did not require a super-sub as Chelsea won comfortably, but as the champagne was being put back on ice at the Hawthorns on Friday night, up stepped the Belgian to become the saviour.
After a mis-hit Gary Cahill shot spun down in the West Brom penalty box, Cesar Azpilicueta pulled the ball back and there was the unmarked Batshuayi waiting to pounce on the moment he’s waited for all year long. His effort scuffed past Ben Foster and into the back of the net. 1-0 Chelsea. 8 minutes left. Pandemonium in the away end.
Soon after, the final whistle blew. Chelsea were champions and it was Michy Batshuayi, the forgotten man from Marseille, who put the finishing touch on the title charge.
It’s a fairytale ending to a nightmare year for Batshuayi. Though there’s been no talk of unhappiness, it’s fair to assume it’s been a disheartening experience thus far at Chelsea for him. Seeing Conte use all other options available (at one point, even Ruben Loftus-Cheek was preferred as a substitute forward) had to have been frustrating. But the youngster refused to give up. When he came onto the field for Hazard with 15 minutes left, very few would have predicted him to be the difference maker, perhaps not even Conte himself.
“It’s great, I’m pleased for him because we all know the difficulty he found in his first season. It’s not easy to play in this league. For him I’m pleased because he’s scored two goals, this one was very important for him and us. It’s great because it’s not easy in one moment to change the game. I did this to try to win and Michy repaid me a lot for my choice. Also Willian’s impact was very good. It means I trust my squad and this season we have had three competitions, league, FA Cup and Capital One Cup. For this reason certain players didn’t have a lot of time but they worked very hard, Michy is a great example. I’m very happy for him because to score a very important goal is great.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea FC
It's just one goal, but in the context of things, it holds more value than that. It turned Chelsea into champions, and though that would have happened by the end of next week in all likelihood, it means the Blues can now focus on the FA Cup final to make it a truly great season.
Goals as big as this can define player’s careers and have the capacity of creating new-found belief. For Batshuayi, it could very well reverse the direction in which his Chelsea career was heading. The exit door he has been staring at since January is closing with every contribution he makes, none bigger than the one tonight.
He wrote himself into the Chelsea history books with this goal. He may have just altered the script on how his Chelsea story plays out.