A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s home match against Brighton.
On Wednesday evening Chelsea hosted Brighton and Hove Albion in what was The Blues’s first home match in nearly 4 weeks. It was a match which was of significance to both ends of the table, with Chelsea lying in 6th place, just a single point behind 4th and 3 points from Arsenal in 3rd and Brighton in 15th, just 5 points ahead of the relegation zone.
Despite The Blues heading in to this match with only 1 defeat in their last 9 matches, there have been numerous negative aspects to the team’s performances, leading to a poor atmosphere swirling around the manager’s every move. Both the media and supporters have been critical of manager Maurizio Sarri’s stewardship of the playing side of the club.
Sarri reacted by making 7 changes to his team that started so woefully at Cardiff last weekend. As expected, talisman Eden Hazard and the mercurial N’Golo Kante returned, but also Emerson Palmieri replaced the injured Marcos Alonso and Olivier Giroud was brought in to the attack instead of Gonzalo Higuain.
But it will be the inclusion of Callum Hudson-Odoi, for his first Premier League start, along with the 18 year old Ruben Loftus-Cheek and defender Andreas Christensen that was the main point of talk in the stands. This is a line up very similar to what most supporters would like to see. There was even a whiff of expectation amongst the crowd, something severely lacking in recent weeks.
Chris Hughton, with one eye on their FA Cup semi final on Saturday, made a few changes to his starting XI. This included the expected resting of top goal scorer 35 year old Glenn Murray and replacing him with their record signing Florin Andone who is now fit again after being out for 3 weeks with an injury. However, Hughton did not make as many changes as some expected to see.
The match started with The Blues dominating possession. Nothing new there. The visitors set up to defend deep and in big numbers. Also, nothing new there. However, there was a difference to Chelsea’s recent matches. There was far more movement in the attacking third and more support from midfield. Suddenly they were showing signs of more intent and threat to their opponent’s goal.
Having said that, chances were still at a premium. The lively Hudson-Odoi had the best of the early chances, but his shot was deflected over the bar. Giroud was linking up play far better than Higuain has been able to recently and with Hazard and Hudson-Odoi heavily involved the play continued around the Brighton penalty box. And with the midfield, especially Loftus-Cheek, pressing forward Chelsea continued to ask questions of the big green wall of Brighton’s defensive set up.
Just before the half hour mark, a beautifully flowing move resulted in Kante unable to get his shot away, and then Giroud had a shot from only 6 yards out which was blocked by some outstanding defending. But the forward movement from the hosts continued and eventually another flowing move ended with Hudson-Odoi making a couple of yards space for himself on the right and his cross was flicked in by Giroud. It was an assist and a goal richly deserved by 2 players who were making a difference to Chelsea’s play.
What was all the more impressive was that this opening goal, scored against a very defensively set up side, was achieved between a player making his first ever Premier League start and a player making his first Premier League start in 2019.
It had been a dominant, commanding first half for The Blues. In some of their recent matches, this has led to a dramatic drop off in their second half performances, but not this time. This time they kept their shape and belief in their play. Despite all that the visitors could muster, they rarely troubled Kepa’s goal. Instead, Chelsea kept at it and remained in control of the match.
Then on the hour mark, up stepped Hazard. The Belgian finally took the match by the scruff of the neck as he ran on to a Loftus-Cheek’s pass, cut inside and stroke his shot into the far corner from the edge of the box. As relief and joy took hold, up stepped Loftus-Cheek for his biggest moment in the match.
The 23 year old has had a fairly torrid time at Chelsea since being part of such a dominant youth team. A range of loans and some long spells at the club whilst hardly featuring for the team are now starting to look like just a memory. His midfield play had been exemplary all match, winning tackles in defence, linking up teammates and joining in attacks in the opponent’s penalty area. But his goal was a moment of magic. It was a copy of Hazard’s goal except that the Englishman’s finish was even more emphatic.
This result will hold quite a significance within the run in to the end of the season. The 3 points and the fact the team played well for almost the whole match are very important, but it was how well the youngsters became significant components within the team. The performances of Christensen, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi, along with Giroud were exactly what the team, the supporters and the manager all needed.
Sarri will now have more options and decisions to make before each remaining match. A situation he should be very pleased with. All 4 players will be hard to drop, but with The Blues continuing with their 2 matches a week for a couple more weeks, at least the manager has plenty of options.
Hazard and Loftus-Cheek were both substituted and everyone will hope that that was a sign both will start in Chelsea’s next match. The ever present Azpilicueta was also withdrawn early, while Emerson, Kante and especially Jorginho had very good matches. The manager will do well to not tinker with this line up too much.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue