Chelsea beat Newcastle to go clear at summit but questions remain
For a long time, Chelsea was far from its best, toiling against the Newcastle United side that had provoked the blip that has seen its lead at the top of the table whittled away over the past month. It was fortunate to go in ahead at halftime, but then controlled the second half, winning comfortably 2-0 — a ninth home victory out of nine this season — to pull two points ahead of Manchester City, who drew at Everton, at the top of the table.
This, though, was a weary performance that raised questions about Chelsea’s capacity to see out the season.
Newcastle began brightly. A Remy Cabella effort deflected wide off John Terry after 20 minutes and then a Yoan Gouffran free-kick was beaten away by Petr Cech, who can only have seen it late as it flashed past the wall. Cabella was a persistent threat and, 14 minutes before half-time, he skipped by Terry before hitting a low left-foot shot that Cech did well to push away.
When a Chelsea break did come, led inevitably by Eden Hazard, it was rather squandered by Diego Costa, who tried to return the ball to the Belgian rather than shooting, a needless over-complication that allowed Jack Colback to make the interception.
Jose Mourinho cut a frustrated figure on the edge of his technical area, at one point angrily swiping at the air after Cesc Fabregas, who had been fortunate to avoid a yellow card after treading on the heel of Ayoze Perez, hit a long ball far too far ahead of Oscar.
Just as Tottenham had unsettled Chelsea by running at its defense, so to did Newcastle. Moussa Sissoko charged by Cesar Azpilicueta, who collapsed with what appeared to be a muscular injury, hurtled into the box and, aiming inside the near post, struck the woodwork.
The question then is why Chelsea has suddenly become vulnerable to sides running at it, and the answer may lie in Nemanja Matic. Earlier in the season, he had the pace and energy to cover, but he looks weary and perhaps isn’t offering the same he once did. Mourinho has barely rotated this season — 10 of his squad have played 16 or more Premier League games this season. The suspicion is that Mouirnho went all out to win the league by Christmas, thinking he could then rotate and focus on the Champions League with a comfortable cushion.
Gary Cahill, having previously started every league game this season, was left on the bench after his chastening against Harry Kane in Chelsea’s defeat at Tottenham on New Year’s Day, while Thibaut Courtois was also omitted having broken his thumb in the first half of that game, but that was as far as Mourinho’s changes went until Azpilicueta was forced off. It would be dangerous to speculate too much, but muscular injuries can be the result of fatigue.
But however much it had ridden its luck, there is no denying the smartness or sharpness of this Chelsea side. Three minutes before half-time, Willian had the wherewithal to take a quick corner, Branislav Ivanovic rolled the ball across goal and Oscar, anonymous until then, fired in at the back post with Chelsea’s first shot on target of the game. Newcastle, who by that point had had five, had been much the better side, but it was Chelsea who had the half-time lead.
The home side was rather more effective after the break and might have had a penalty as Diego Costa’s cross hit into Coloccini hand. The Spain striker then doubled Chelsea’s lead just before the hour, seizing on Oscar’s volleyed backheel from an Hazard pass, creating space with an astute touch and drilling a low finish past Tim Krul. Only a last-ditch clearance from Coloccini prevented him adding a superb third with 12 minutes remaining.
For Newcastle, it was a third game in a row without a win under its caretaker manager John Carver, whose overall record across four stints at clubs in England now reads played 12, won three, lost eight. He seems affable enough, and there is no doubt he is a football man, but the chances of him getting the job full-time look remote.
For Mourinho it was a welcome win, a steadying of the ship after two away games that brought a single point, all the more satisfying for having come as City could only draw. The first-half performance, though, will raise concerns.