Chelsea found themselves in a bit a selection crisis this week, with Pedro and Álvaro Morata collecting red cards on Wednesday to join hamstring injury-victims Cesc Fàbregas and Gary Cahill as well as ankle injury-sufferers Thibaut Courtois and Danny Drinkwater on the sidelines. But if anyone was concerned about these issues worsening Chelsea’s already significant goalscoring crisis, Chelsea’s bright start and four-goal haul at Brighton should have allayed some fears. An Hazard brace and one each from Willian and Moses put Chelsea back on the winning path after five straight draws, and all was right with the world once again.
Chelsea were not only back in the goals and the wins, but also back in last season’s tactics, with Conte trotting out the tried-n-true 3-4-3 of our title-winning season. There may have been fresh faces in a few positions — Caballero deputizing for Courtois, Bakayoko playing the “Matić-role”, Batshuayi at center forward — but the Blues produced a familiar and more than welcome return to old form.
For the home side, Chris Hughton made the same mistake as several other Premier League managers before him, changing his tactics drastically to try to mirror and thwart Chelsea. Brighton have had one of the most solid defences in the league thanks in part to their standard back-four setup, but they opted for a rather unfamiliar three-man setup.
Within seven minutes, their plans lay in tatters.
With just their second foray into Brighton’s defensive third, Chelsea found the back of the net. A cross from a reinvigorated Victor Moses from the right flank didn’t find its target, but the deflection by Brighton midfielder Dale Stephens fell right to Eden Hazard’s feet. Eden took a step, cleared a shooting lane with the drop of the shoulder, and blasted a powerful shot right past goalkeeper Matthew Ryan. It was Hazard’s 10th goal of the season.
The fun was only beginning, with Chelsea’s front three of Hazard, Willian, and Batshuayi displaying the sort of freedom of movement that has not been seen as often as we would’ve liked this season.
Less than five minutes later, their interplay reached its peak with one of the best goals we’ve seen all season.
Fittingly started by N’Golo Kanté winning the ball in midfield and passing to Willian, Chelsea’s forwards flooded forward with purpose. Movement, pace, and skill combined, the interchange of passes that followed left all those watching mesmerized, including the Brighton defenders. Willian found Hazard, who back-heeled the ball to Batshuayi who followed suit to return the ball to Willian. His excellent finish was the least impressive part of the sequence, when that alone would’ve made highlight reels around the world.
Now with a comfortable two-goal lead, Chelsea let Brighton have the ball in non-threatening positions, controlling the center of the pitch very well through Kanté and Tiemoué Bakayoko. The Seagulls did have some joy on the flanks, particularly on the right where Pirates of the Caribbean extra Ezequiel Schelotto buccaneered up and down the pitch, but overall, the Blues were not too bothered.
Meanwhile, the front three continued their merry dance, though a telling finish was lacking.
Willian and Hazard link up again as Chelse break and this time the little Belgian finds his compatriot who fakes his shot to make space but his weak-footed effort is saved for a corner. 0-2. #CFC pic.twitter.com/j7KGP6Gb4c— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) January 20, 2018
Then, as Chelsea are often wont to do, they made things a bit more exciting for themselves with some poor play in defence, including some questionable goalkeeper decisions, which perhaps on another day, woud’ve resulted in a penalty kick. But Caballero got away with his almost-foul on Schelotto and then made up for his weak play on crosses with a tremendous save on a downwards header from six yards out.
After Brighton did well to fashion a chance from a cross, Caballero manages to get a hand on a goal-bound header to protect the clean sheet. 0-2. #CFC pic.twitter.com/N8LXTHF4bl— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) January 20, 2018
Schelotto also fell down while running next to Bakayoko in the area, but referee Jonathan Moss remained unmoved — just as he remained at the end of the half, when Eden Hazard found a leg and fell over on the edge of the penalty area. On balance, it was probably fair to let this incident go without a call either way as well.
Here's that Hazard penalty shout from the end of the first half. Thoughts? 0-2. #CFC pic.twitter.com/V94Eqs7g7w— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) January 20, 2018
On the return from half-time, Brighton went back to their previous levels of energy, bringing the ball forward with tons of effort but little quality. Schelotto remained their main threat, still running up and down our left flank and leaving the generally overworked Marcos Alonso increasingly ragged. Conte had seen enough of that situation by the 75th minute, and brought on fresh legs in Davide Zappacosta, underlining Chelsea’s need to complete the Emerson signing for AS Roma (or another left back from some other team) soon.
By then, Conte had been forced into another substitution as well, with David Luiz making his first Premier League appearance since October after replacing Andreas Christensen, who may or may not have had a concussion after a clash of head with Shane Duffy. (Here are the supposed rules that teams should be but may not be following, for reference.)
The hosts’ up-tempo direct play did create a few good opportunities for them, but Caballero stood tall when called upon. The former Manchester City veteran had not kept a clean sheet in any of this previous Chelsea appearances, but he certainly earned this one.
As Alonso is beaten to Rüdiger's headed clearance, Caballero once again comes up big to deny Brighton and keep the clean sheet intact. 0-2. #CFC pic.twitter.com/IzcQOVrooE— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) January 20, 2018
Soon after Chelsea’s second substitution, Hazard scored his second goal, Chelsea’s third and put the result beyond doubt.
It was started by the oncoming Zappacosta’s most terrible throw-in that missed everyone but also bamboozled the Brighton defenders. The ball eventually fell to Willian’s feet, who found Hazard, who was then simply allowed to waltz in on goal, defenders backing away and falling away like dominoes, and collect his brace.
Brighton had energy and desire for one more surge, but it was all for naught and they resigned themselves to defeat.
Conte used his final substitution to bring on Charly Musonda instead of new signing Ross Barkley and the young Chelsea Academy product repaid that faith with an excellent 10 minutes. Showcasing his ability to play not only on the wing but also deeper in central midfield, the 21-year-old was full of purpose and youthful enthusiasm, as well as tremendous quality as his pass for Chelsea’s fourth goal of the game demonstrated. Cesc Fàbregas would’ve been proud. (Cool, calm finish by Moses, too.)
All in all, a great win to shatter some of the doubts surrounding the squad, the players, and the head coach. Brighton were expected to be a tough nut to crack, but they were anything but. Then again, when Hazard is in mood, there aren’t many who can stop the Blues. The only thing lacking today was perhaps a goal for Michy, but his performance overall should convince Chelsea and Conte to maybe rethink the possibility of spending far too many millions this January.
COME ON, CHELSEA!
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