A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s capitulation away at Newcastle United.
Sunday saw the final round of this season’s Premier League matches, including Chelsea’s trip away to Newcastle United. Even though The Blues have not won at St James’s Park in their last 5 visits, they traveled up to the North East in good form and the focus of victory could mean Champions League football next season.
Antonio Conte’s side have won 5 out of the last 6 matches and were going up against a Newcastle side that have lost their last 4 matches. Add to that the incentive of victory over The Magpies potentially leading to a top 4 finish for them, Chelsea had it all to play for.
However, the Italian did not start with his strongest line up. Antonio Rudiger, Marcos Alonso and Cesc Fabregas were all omitted. We can only surmise the manager leans towards the sentimentality of winning Saturday’s FA Cup Final over the potential prize of Champions League qualification. After all, the latter still depended on the unlikely outcome of Brighton winning away at free scoring Liverpool.
But with that still being possible, Conte would surely send out the team he’d picked fired up and ready to force back what has been a lacklustre opponent in recent matches. The hosts had flirted with relegation but a great run of form had guaranteed safety and earned a top half place in the league.
Conte opted for a 3-5-2 and the extra man in midfield was probably there to negate the creativeness of Jonjo Shelvey and stifle the forward runs of Mohamed Diamé. Emerson Palmieri’s defensive skills would have been chosen to keep an eye on the talented Matt Ritchie.
However the away side started very flat and were second best throughout the early stages. This gave the impetus to the home side, who must have expected far more from last season’s Champions. Newcastle would have been ready for a barrage of Chelsea attacks, but misplaced passes and a target man who never seemed ready for a quick through ball made it easy for the home side.
As their belief grew, it was The Magpies who created the openings. They won all the 50/50 challenges and showed their visitors how effective movement off the ball can be. It meant that not only did the hosts go in at half time in the lead, but if it hadn’t been for the agility of Thibaut Courtois, they would have led by more than 1-0.
The Blues started the second half with more purpose, which culminated in an athletic attempt from Olivier Giroud being well saved by Martin Dubravka. This was in the 52nd minute of the game and was Chelsea’s first attempt at goal.
However, whatever control The Blues had created slowly ebbed away. The home side, roared on by a passionate home following, upped their tempo and put last season’s Champions to the sword.
Praise needs to be heaped upon Rafael Benitez. Although much maligned by Chelsea supporters, despite winning the Europa League whilst his brief spell in charge of the West Londoners, the Spaniard has stayed loyal to The Geordies. Having reinstated Newcastle in the Premier League at the first attempt, he has guided a generally Championship squad to a 10th place finish. And, as they showed in parts of this match, they can play quality, effective football.
His team plays with a togetherness and a passion that overawed whatever extra skill and guile that Chelsea could muster. As their midfield took control, Shelvey pulled the strings while Diamé was a thorn in Chelsea’s attacks. The Senegalese won most tackles and regained possession more than any other player.
With Tiemoue Bakayoko having very little influence and Ross Barkley moving further forward, the 2 Newcastle midfielders were able to overpower the always over worked N’Golo Kante. And the score line emphasised the dominance. Chelsea created very few quality chances and, as befitting their season as a whole, they spurned every one of them.
A positive though did come in the form of Barkley. Despite very little first team football this season, and none since 31 January, the Englishman was a live wire. Willing to press forward and create attacks, he could be an answer this current squad desperately needs to resolve. He created and had Chelsea’s best opportunity, and surely only did not score due to his lack of full match fitness.
Another positive was Courtois in goal. Yes he may have conceded 3, but the score line would have been far worse if he wasn’t on form. A string of fine saves nearly kept his side in the match, but it was his attitude that impressed most. The way he reacted and chastised his teammates whenever Newcastle created a decent chance, showed his passion for not conceding. There has been regular rumours of his willingness to move away, but a player who is so hungry for keeping the opposition out when there was little to play for indicates a player still focused on the Chelsea cause.
However this was not a great finish to Chelsea’s league season. A season for which supporters hoped The Blues would roar finished with a whimper. If this was Antonio Conte’s last league match in charge, it highlighted the flaws and issues with his squad. After such an impressive run to win the league title in his first season, it will be a shame that he may leave the Premier League in such a way.
However, Conte and all who follow The Blues have a Wembley showdown to look forward to on Saturday, and a Cup Final win isn’t a bad way to finish the season and it will be yet another major trophy to celebrate winning.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue