Hazard lights up a blue afternoon

It seems unlikely we will be asked, as we were after the Everton game, to look for positives after a 5-0 defeat but, counter intuitively, there actually were some at Stamford Bridge against an excellent Chelsea side and few, if any, in the slender home reversal.

The west London stadium will always be remembered for the draw which preserved Premier League status rather than this hammering, and rightly so, yet Town played significantly more football in abject defeat than they did on that legendary night and, for the first 45 minutes at least, performed as divisional equals rather than plucky survivors.

Eventually, the visitors were overwhelmed by the sheer quality of their hosts who were clearly determined to banish their Dean Court horrors against the weakest side in the league.

After a good move which created an opportunity for Mooy, headed just over by the returning Aussie, and a fair few breaks utilising Diakhaby’s pace (though, sadly, lacking a final ball or any semblance of composure), Chelsea took the lead with a piece of class from Kante who reverse passed to take full advantage of Higuain’s excellent movement.

The Argentine, who enjoyed an excellent home debut for the Pensioners had been denied by a good block from Schindler and a slightly too tight angle before opening his Chelsea account as a surprisingly open game provided a decent level of entertainment. Unlike on that glorious, status saving night, Town were willing to attack and defended quite well under significant pressure.

They should have been rewarded with going in to the break only one down and still in some sort of contention before being completely undone by yet another exceptionally poor refereeing decision. Kachunga, who worked hard but not particularly effectively throughout the half, tracked back and his gentle nudge on Azpilicueta, outside the area, was deemed a penalty.

Hazard, more of whom later, stepped up and ended the contest.
It was harsh on the strugglers who had played their part. The returning Mooy and Billing had given Town’s midfield a much more familiar look though it was Bacuna who caught the eye more than the returnees with a performance which showed no little promise.

The gulf in quality, however, was undeniable. Chelsea’s array of world class footballers passed and moved with effortless authority while Town’s journeymen strained every sinew to try to make things go their way. Hazard, in particular, was astonishingly good. 

Watching him on television showcases his enormous talent, but only in two dimensions; in the flesh, the Belgian is even better. An instinctive awareness of space, untouchable on the ball and a sublime passer, Hazard ghosts around the pitch and defies any attempt to man mark him – get too close and he will destroy you in a couple of feet of space, lay off him and he will bamboozle you in to giddy confusion.

Despite the contest being obviously over at half time, Town held out for 20 minutes in the second half though they were grateful for some rather wasteful Chelsea play. The sum total of Town’s contribution was a weak Billing shot from distance, though Kachunga, chasing a lost cause, looked to be caught in the box but, of course, the defender was given the benefit of the doubt in this instance.

Slowly but surely, however, the visitors began to unravel as incessant Chelsea pressure all over the pitch started to tell and midfield mistakes became more regular. One such error lead to Barkley striding forward and feeding Hazard who capped a great display with a clinical finish.
Minutes later, Chelsea conjured a quality fourth with Higuain firing home after being teed up, again, by Kante. The shot took a significant deflection over Lössl, giving the keeper no chance.

By this point, Town had dissolved in to an unseemly mess and whatever confidence had been garnered from a so-so first half evaporated in the face of the painfully huge gap in quality. By the time David Luiz’s header from a corner was diverted in to the net by Kachunga (Lössl would probably have saved the effort), Hazard had been replaced and while Town’s torment didn’t stop when he was off the pitch, they no longer had to worry about a player operating on a different universe to them.

Despite the spirit sapping performance in the second half, the away support continued to cheer on their team though the black humour so necessary to alleviate the pain was much in evidence. “You’re nothing special, we lose every week” was a particular favourite, along with jibes at the passive, touristy home support.

A brief and enthusiastic appearance by new signing Karlan Grant offered a glimpse of his willingness to find attacking space but no opportunities for him to actually use it. Hopefully, his chance will come against lesser opposition. Arsenal (!).

As we wait for relegation, the next few months can only be described as purgatorial. Somehow, the new manager and team are going to have to pull out some encouraging performances and maybe even a goal or two. As it stands, a soul destroying future looks far more likely with no end in sight.

Footnote: thankfully, I’m off until Newcastle away. Timing it to coincide with the FA cup, just the one game missed v Arsenal. I may report on the US experience of watching your team on NBC but I’ll probably ski instead.

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