He was once the commander of one of the greatest cavalries around, but when Rafa Benitez returned to the home of his former charges, Chelsea, on Saturday lunchtime, he knew his current army would struggle to compete. Four years on from his fractious, lonely spell in charge at Stamford Bridge, he arrived there for the first time since with a new challenge. Just competing would be a victory for Newcastle United, or so said, everyone.
The Magpies have won only once on the King’s Road in the Premier League era, and their latest attempt to rectify that went as expected in more ways than one. Benitez was met with the standard reception from Chelsea fans; as a man who went head-to-head with them on so many ill-tempered occasions with Liverpool, he will never be popular despite winning the Europa League and steering the club into the Champions League in a few short months. The mess he inherited was a big one, too, but his cool, calm and professional demeanour ensured the toxic atmosphere surrounding him in 2012/13 was never an issue.
On the pitch, the game eventually followed the script in the same way it did at Old Trafford a fortnight ago. Dwight Gayle, back in the team at the expense of Joselu, scored early after some considerable Newcastle pressure. Chelsea simply weren’t at the races; complacency or fatigue were most likely responsible.
Attempts to play it out of the back, with the impressive Andreas Christensen once again deputising for the injured, but ostracised David Luiz, were closed down. There was no pressure on Newcastle and the players knew it, but just like in Manchester, the old cliché was proven true; the visitors had scored too early.
Something clicked for Antonio Conte’s men from there. Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy for Mohamed Diame and Mikel Merino to win the ball and keep hold of it. N’Golo Kante began to harry in trademark style; Cesc Fabregas opened up spaces and got the ball forward more. Eden Hazard stepped in field and, moments after Alvaro Morata was denied a penalty, the Belgian exuded his frustration to score his first.
Fabregas got a lot of joy from playing passes over the top of the visiting defence, completely bypassing the midfield in the same motion. Looking back, the story of the game was written inside the first 20 minutes; Newcastle were neither brave, nor aware enough to stop the Blues running out 3-1 winners.
Never has this been more evident with the second goal, which came just 12 minutes after the first and 21 after Gayle’s opener. Matt Ritchie has been in superb form this season, and in the absence of Jamaal Lascelles and Christian Atsu, two of Newcastle’s best players this campaign, that has shone through.
Five assists make him the most creative player in the division’s bottom half, but he was again partly responsible for another goal. Unaware of how much time he had to control another long pass from the home side, the winger headed it straight to Victor Moses.
The Lascelles-shaped hole was gaping; either Florian Lejeune or Chancel Mbemba, who were both well positioned in front of Morata, could have cleared Moses’ cross. But, more concerned about scoring an own goal, they both cowered, putting up no resistance as Chelsea’s record signing helped himself to a ninth Premier League goal.
Lascelles has shown himself to be a leader of the pack, and it is no coincidence that Newcastle have conceded more since he’s been away than in the previous ten games, nor is it that Newcastle played right into Chelsea’s hands from the moment they scored, allowing Hazard in particular to exploit gaping holes between the lines.
Ritchie was culpable later on by giving away a second half penalty, expertly dispatched by Hazard. The Belgian has taken time to hit his stride this season, but he was on form on Saturday. Not only was he the main threat with the ball at his feet, but he dictated the play, linking midfield and attack for the hosts with great precision. He could have had a hat-trick, had Karl Darlow not been equal to a number of efforts one-on-one.
The issue is not that Newcastle lost on Saturday; just like at Manchester United, there is an understanding that most teams will struggle to match a team of that quality. Paul Pogba was as influential then as Hazard was on Saturday; but the disappointment came because of the completely avoidable individual errors for each of the goals. Merino had bullied his hero Fabregas early on, but did not track Hazard for the equaliser, and there was no need for Ritchie to dive in the way he did to concede a stonewall penalty.
Having your captain miss four games, and possibly more with no official return date set, will impact any team. Lascelles is probably Newcastle’s third best defender on ability; Lejeune and Mbemba are both excellent both on the ball and positionally. The 23-year-old brings steel, an ability to rally his teammates and the confidence to do so even when he himself isn’t having a great game. Newcastle’s soft centre was magnified again at Stamford Bridge, and the pressure is rising with just one point taken from six games.
It could have been much worse, though, both during and after the game. A lot of the teams around Newcastle in the table were playing each other, but only one point was made on them from below. The Magpies sit 14th with two huge home games in the next ten days, against in-form Leicester and Sam Allardyce’s Everton. Heading into that crucial double header, one thing is for sure; with or without Jamaal Lascelles, Newcastle must be as brave, energetic and organised as they were in the first 15 minutes at Stamford Bridge for the entire game.
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