For 75 minutes it was somewhere between Candia (1648 – 1669) and Philadelphia (1378 – 1390) — not that Philadelphia, the one in Byzantium — the two longest sieges in human recorded history. Rafa Benitez rolled out a five-man backline, packed ten of his eleven players behind the ball and dared Chelsea to frontal assault, trebuchet, tunnel or storm their way past. Chelsea did none of that, trying to lull the defenders to sleep instead with immense amounts of ineffective possession. But the Toon Alamo stood strong.
In his post-match press conference Sarri said he knew that bogey-team Newcastle would be a tough proposition at St. James’ Park, but even he wasn’t expecting what he got.
“We knew that here is a difficult game for us, especially for us, but I think for every team. Because only in the last season Chelsea lost here, Manchester United lost here, Arsenal lost here. So I think it is not so easy to play here against this opponent. The match has maybe been more difficult. In Italy I have never seen Rafa play with five defenders and also so compact, so it was really very difficult. We needed to move the ball very fast and be patient.”
“[...] To win here is difficult, it is very difficult for Chelsea and for every team. To draw with five minutes to the end for us it would have been more difficult. I think that this team from a character point of view is a strong team.”
The five-man defense was new for Benítez, too, but he clearly felt he needed to go extra defensive, especially with key injuries to Shelvey and Lascelles prior to the game.
Not that Sarri hasn’t seen a packed defense before. He’s from the land of catenaccio. Asked if he expected more teams to follow Newcastle’s lead, he allowed that they might.
“I don’t know. In Italy it was usual, of course not against Juve or Inter but if we played against the last ten in the table.”
Medieval sieges didn’t have referees but football games do, and still-green Chelsea debutante Paul Tierney ended up playing a crucial role with both a controversial call and a non-call.
The call went our way, Marcos Alonso going down in the penalty area under a Fabian Schär challenge, with Eden Hazard converting in the 76th minute. Seven minutes later DeAndre Yedlin elbowed Olivier Giroud in the mug and was still allowed to cross for Joselu’s equalizer.
Steam was coming from both benches by then. But Sarri apparently isn’t a man who moans about the ref — not in public and not after a win, anyway.
“No, I thought only it was the first time of our opponent of our box, it is impossible, was a bit unlucky, but I don’t know if it was an elbow or not. I was far [away].
“It is the same [for the penalty call], I saw from far. The benches are on the line of the half, so for me it was really difficult for me to say if it was a penalty, the same for the action on the other side. I was about 50 or 60 metres, I am not able to say. I am not a referee and I don’t want to be a referee ever.”
We’ve been warned repeatedly that the first two months would be difficult. We watch and we can see that Chelsea are imperfect, still a work in progress. And yet here we are, three-for-three and second in the table, two points ahead of mighty Manchester City, who dropped two points this weekend against Wolves.
What does it all mean?
“Nothing. The league is 38 matches, now the table is not important. I think.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Football.London
Now there’s a man who’s good at managing expectations.