The pressure surrounding Rafael Benitez’s appointment as Chelsea manager was at boiling point on Saturday as Chelsea surrendered the lead to lose 3-1 at West Ham United.
Chelsea took the lead through Juan Mata as the visitors took control in the early stages. However a re-vitalised West Ham scored three second-half goals to pile more pressure on Benitez who is yet to taste victory with his new club. Carlton Cole equalised for the Hammers on the hour mark before Mohamed Diame put his side in front with just minutes to go. But Chelsea were in self-destruct mode at this point, and Modibo Maiga struck late on to ensure victory for Sam Allardyce’s men.
The defeat gives Benitez the unwanted record of being the first manager since Gianluca Vialli to fail to win any of his first three games in charge whilst two draws and a defeat has only angered supporters in the wake of Roberto Di Matteo’s dismissal.
But Chelsea and Benitez appeared to be on their way to three points and a much needed victory after a superb first-half showing. Mata was reinstated to the starting XI after dropping to the bench for the midweek draw at home to Fulham, and what a difference he made. The Spaniard was dictating much of Chelsea’s attacking play and looked unstoppable whilst on the ball, not least when he gave the Blues the lead inside 13 minutes.
Victor Moses picked out Fernando Torres from a wide position with a simple pass beyond the West Ham defence and when the striker pulled the ball across goal, his compatriot was at hand to sweep the ball into the corner. It was Chelsea’s first goal under Benitez’s reign and it was no surprise that it came from Mata who has been the stand-out performer in the Blue’s season so far.
After the goal Chelsea looked comfortable and it seemed certain that they would add to their tally. Ramires was involved in two chances that went begging soon after, first taking advantage of a poor Guy Demel pass before surging into the box. His pass found Moses but the young Lion scuffed his shot. Ramires later bore down on goal with Torres in support however the Brazilian’s pass could have been better before the out-of-sorts striker failed to make good contact with his shot.
Chelsea were as vibrant on the ball as they have been all season in the first 45 minutes, however they were equally wasteful in front of goal and West Ham dug in to get to half time just one goal down. At the break Allardyce introduced Diame and it proved to be an inspired substitution as West Ham came out a different side. Chelsea were not allowed the time on the ball that they were afforded in the first half, and rather than the spectators they had been before the break the Irons very much let the visitors know they were in a game with some unsavoury challenges.
But the physicality in West Ham’s approach served to unsettle Chelsea (Gary Cahill felt the full force of Cole’s boot as the England defender suffered a bleeding nose) and the game changed in the Hammer’s favour. Following a succession of corners, Cole stooped lowest to net the equaliser after Matt Jarvis’ cross was deflected off Cahill. West Ham’s pressure told and their use of wide men to get the ball into the box paid dividends.
But despite West Ham’s improvement, it was Chelsea who almost reclaimed the lead moments later. First Eden Hazard had a fierce shot well saved by Jussi Jaaskelainen but the Finn could only turn it into the path of the on-rushing Torres. True to form however, the Spaniard’s rebounded effort was tame and Jaaskelainen gathered safely. It looked like it had been left to Mata to find a way through and he almost did just that with a spectacular free-kick that crashed against the upright.
As time progressed, the game became stretched and there seemed to be cracks opening up in both defences. Jarvis went close on 82 minutes when he latched on to Mark Noble’s through ball but Petr Cech was equal to it. Ashley Cole resorted to a goal-line clearance from the resulting corner but with just four minutes of normal time to play, the Hammers struck. Jarvis again was involved and his cross was ultimately laid off by Cole for Diame to strike the killer blow from 15 yards.
Chelsea were broken and they offered little resistance in the dying minutes when Cole gifted the ball to Matty Taylor whose shot was saved only for Maiga to score from the rebound. Much praise must be given to Allardyce and his men who refused to give this game up when it looked like Chelsea could have run away with it. But had the Blues not been so wasteful in their first half of dominance they would surely have brought the three points back to West London.
Chelsea are now win-less in their last seven games and fall even further away from the reds and blues of Manchester in the Premier League title race. With the exception of Mata, Chelsea’s players need to start performing and quickly if they are to keep in touch with league leaders Man Utd who are now 10 points ahead of the Blues. On this showing, they should be looking over their shoulders in the meantime at those closing the gap; Champions League is the target at this rate.
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