Chelsea’s European hopes fade further away at Watford

For a little while there was bite and needle. Most of it, admittedly, involved Diego Costa, a man to whom biting and needling are as natural as breathing. But then both sides seemed to recognized that a draw suited both of them as Chelsea and Watford settled for a goalless draw at Vicarage Road. 

Both are safe in mid-table. Both are still in the FA Cup. And Chelsea, perhaps, harbour dreams of repeating what it did in 2012, and using the fact it’s not in a title race to focus on the UEFA Champions League.

"We’re playing better and better and you saw how the team played in the last 20-25 minutes," Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink told the media after the match. "My old goalie from a previous spell should get a big reward because if it was not for him we would win easily."

PREMIER LEAGUE RESULTS

This game simply didn’t matter all that much to either side. Watford, cruising on 33 points, can take great credit from the fact that, already, relegation seems an impossibly distant threat, while it still leads Chelsea by four points. Chelsea, perhaps, can’t afford to be too cavalier, but the gap to the bottom three is eight points and shows little sign of being closed.

So for much of the second half this became a strange exercise in looking to the future, of which nobody’s, perhaps, is more significant than that of John Terry. Whatever else he is, Terry is also — at times — a very astute politician. The 35-year-old’s announcement that he will not be offered a new contract at the end of the season has already led to reams of comment about Chelsea’s wisdom in allowing such an icon to leave, and here the away fans spent the whole of the build-up to kickoff chanting his name.

Hiddink said on Tuesday that his captain is “playing perfectly”, raising questions about why he isn’t being offered at least a year more. Add in the demonstration of his popularity with fans and it may be that Chelsea’s hierarchy, whose recent record in matters of personnel hasn’t been brilliant, decides that offloading him can be deferred for another year.

The game itself presented an occasional counter view. Terry has never been a great defender if a forward gets a run at him and Odion Ighalo, quick and strong and menacing repeatedly did. It could be argued that that’s the fault of the back of Chelsea’s midfield for not protecting him, but equally there can be little doubt that he’s slower on the turn than he used to be.

More surprisingly, Terry was beaten in the air by Sebastian Prodl as he met a Ben Watson corner. Fortunately for Chelsea, the header was close enough to Thibaut Courtois that he could make a relatively comfortable save. On the other hand, there were moments when his anticipation and reading of the game looked as good as ever.

The first half had flickered without really catching light. Watford arguably had the better of it, the running of its wide men causing Chelsea constant problems. Its only clear chance, though, came after 28 minutes as Jose Manuel Jurado created space with a jinking run from the left and then pushed the ball on for Etienne Capoue, whose fierce shot from the edge of the box was beaten away by Courtois.

But just as the game seemed to be drifting towards halftime came some familiar nonsense involving Diego Costa. He had been slightly fortunate to avoid a caution early on after bundling Prodl over as the pair jostled awaiting a cross, and then became involved in an entirely avoidable contretemps with the Watford right-back Juan Carlos Paredes. The Ecuadorean shoved Costa to the ground on the halfway line. Costa bounced up in a fury, eyes wide, arms outstretched as he implored the fourth official to take action. What happened next was utterly predictable.

The Spanish forward barged into Paredes as the ball was cleared by Courtois and the fullback threw himself down clutching his face. It was all very silly, both players fully deserving the yellow cards they were shown. As players from both sides piled in, only the Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores emerged with any credit, cooling tempers by hugging Costa, with whom he worked at Atletico Madrid.

Chelsea had offered little from an attacking point of view before the break, although Costa had created a chance for himself from a long ball, twisting and turning by Prodl and Craig Cathcart before hitting a low angled shot that Heurelho Gomes deflected wide.

It was a little more menacing after the break, a John Obi Mikel long-ranger deflecting off Watson and having to be pushed over, Oscar going close from cut-backs and Heurelho Gomes making excellent reaction saves from Branislav Ivanovic and Costa, but there was no great urgency from either side. The stalemate, though, did take Hiddink’s unbeaten run since taking over form Jose Mourinho to 10 games and for the FA Cup and the Champions League.