West Brom 2 Chelsea 3: Three talking points as Pedro scores on debut
Three talking points as defending champions Chelsea ease to a 3-2 victory over West Brom at The Hawthorns
Normal service resumed for Chelsea?
Absolutely not, except in one vital area: the one that matters most. Chelsea overcame an archetypal Tony Pulis team, – something that Jose Mourinho knows from bitter experience is no easy task – and a few notable setbacks, to grind out this crucial 3-2 win over West Brom. The early penalty conceded by Nemanja Matic betrayed the peculiar unease that is running through this Chelsea team at the moment. Having wriggled off the hook with Thibaut Courtois’ save from James Morrison’s spot-kick, the Blues took charge and looked ready to inflict a sobering defeat on West Brom, similar to the one that the Baggies tasted against Manchester City a fortnight ago. Mourinho’s team of 12 months ago would surely have closed ranks at 2-0, carefully choosing their moments to counter. A certain vulnerability crept into the champions’ football towards the end of last term, however. There was a 2-0 advantage surrendered at Hull City in March, before that match was eventually won – and the way in which Chelsea were sliced open for Morrison’s first goal was, frankly, staggering. From Branislav Ivanovic’s slack defending that allowed the initial West Brom cross from the left, to the unattended Salomon Rondon being free to keep the move alive and, ultimately the remarkable amount of time and space enjoyed by the goal-scorer to thrash his shot home, it will all have had Mourinho blinking in disbelief. That unsatisfactory affair was then compounded, when Chelsea were unzipped by Chris Brunt’s ball from deep and Terry, of all people, was caught off-guard, eventually hauling Rondon down and leaving his side to see things out with ten men. For all that, and that the hosts’ reduced their deficit to one almost immediately after Terry’s red, the Blues got over the line. In fact, with the Baggies going ever more gung-ho in pursuit of an equaliser, the away team were increasingly threatening on the break. There was also a reminder, late on, of what a good ‘keeper Courtois is, while the addition of Pedro has instantly afforded Chelsea a new, pacey and imaginative, dimension. Mourinho’s team rode their luck on their way to a first three-point haul of this campaign, and this is a strangely shaky Blues team. By seeing this one through, though, the Londoners might have just dispelled their early-season edginess. Crystal Palace, next week’s visitors to Stamford Bridge, should beware.
Absence speaks louder than words
Mourinho was mildly affronted when he was asked on Sky Sports prior to kick-off to explain the exclusion from his line-up of Gary Cahill. Chelsea’s boss professed himself to be eternally puzzled as to why he should be required to go into detail about the players he doesn’t pick each week. Here, though, the identity of a few of the men consigned to bench duties was as much a source of fascination as were the faces, new and old, who made the cut – and this fact was true of both teams. With respect to Cahill, the England international must be questioning more and more the wisdom of his public statements a couple of weeks ago, designed to encourage John Stones to leave Everton for Stamford Bridge. Replaced by Kurt Zouma at The Hawthorns, the former Bolton player has dropped to third pick in a fight for two places at the heart of the Chelsea backline (even if he will benefit more immediately from Terry’s suspension, after the Blues’ skipper’s red card in this match). Were the Blues able to push through a deal for Stones this week, it will be a long way back into first-team contention for the deposed centre-half. It wasn’t only Mourinho making big calls ahead of this clash, however. Saido Berahino’s non-involvement in West Brom’s match-day squad is probably as reliable an update as to the status of any potential move away from the west Midlands for the Baggies forward, as any official statement concerning the player’s situation could be. More pertinent, with regards to how things might unfold longer term at The Hawthorns, was Pulis’s decision to hand substitute briefs to two of his most recent acquisitions, Rickie Lambert and James Chester. Lambert threw in the towel on his dream move to Liverpool after just a year on Merseyside. The former Southampton centre-forward left Anfield for one reason alone: to play regular football. Yet, three games into life with his new club – the first of which saw him looking distinctly uncomfortable in a position behind a lone striker, as West Brom were torn apart by Manchester City – Lambert has found himself cast aside, once more; reduced to the role of battering ram substitute today, only when the Baggies were handed a numerical advantage by Terry’s dismissal. What’s more, the 33-year-old’s replacement was Rondon, a man eight years his junior, and who has just cost his club £12m. That fee remains a considerable investment for West Brom, even with prices inflating exponentially thanks to the vast sums of cash pouring into the Premier League. Likewise, an outlay of £8m represents a risk for all but the division’s elite clubs. That is the amount of money forked out by Pulis for James Chester, who lasted one game fewer than Lambert before being axed. The Baggies’ boss will be keen for his ex-Hull City defender to force his way back into the reckoning, quickly. If an £8m buy doesn’t cut the mustard at Chelsea or Liverpool he’ll be ushered out the door with barely a murmur. If West Brom part with a similar sum, though, they have to get it right – and Pulis will know it.
What’s up Cesc Fabregas?
One of the major reasons that Barcelona proffered for allowing Fabregas to leave the Nou Camp, was the Catalans’ belief that their Spain international flagged once the season reached its second-half. There were a few hints that Barca were correct in their assessment, as the former Arsenal midfielder found the going tougher in the latter stages of Chelsea’s title winning campaign. In truth, though, Fabregas had set such stratospheric standards as Mourinho’s side imposed themselves on last year’s Premier League from day one, that a slight drop-off was inevitable. After an extended close season break – extremely rare for a man hardened to playing tournament football for his country in the summer months – Fabregas was expected to shine, again, as Chelsea launched their title defence. So far this term, however, the 28-year-old has appeared leggy and immobile. Fabregas has never been blessed with pace, but the manner in which his midfield opponents are currently leaving him in their tracks, at will, must be a matter of some concern for his manager. More startling than his defensive deficiencies, though, is that Fabregas seems to have misplaced his peerless passing ability. There is still the odd decent contribution – witness the ball into Diego Costa in the build-up to Chelsea’s third goal at The Hawthorns – but far too often Fabregas inexplicably surrendered possession, when he was under little or no pressure, against West Brom. It might be that the Spaniard is still suffering a hangover from his outing at the Etihad Stadium last week, when he was run ragged by a rampant Manchester City – and he is far too good a player for this malaise to last. Nevertheless, right now, Mourinho has a dilemma. Fabregas’s form in front of his back-four is requiring Matic to pour through spades of work – and those demands are visibly taking their toll on the Serbian enforcer. When Matic is on his game, the 27 year-old acts as the trigger for everyone else in this Chelsea unit to fire around him. The former Benfica man’s clumsy challenge on Callum McManaman that left Chelsea facing a first-half penalty, and then the way in which he was beaten to the punch as Morrison headed West Brom’s second goal, could well be products of a less than settled mind. If Fabregas is to hold on to his place, short-term, he should be operating higher up the pitch. If that means Mourinho going into the market for an ally for the usually exceptional Matic, then so be it.