Monday 15 August 2016 – Chelsea 2 West Ham 1
Finally, after a summer of the European Championships (who won that again?), Antonio Conte’s arrival at the helm, followed by a decent pre-season, the day had arrived. Our opening game of the new season, even if we did have to wait for it thanks to the TV companies, the Premier League’s paymasters, slotting us into their Monday night offering. But never mind, it was against our favourite caravan dwellers from Stratford.
Conte’s first starting eleven were Courtois in goal, with the familiar back four of Ivanovic, Cahill, JT and Azpilicueta. Exciting to see last season’s stand out Premier League player N’Golo Kante taking his place in the starting lineup wearing our shade of blue, and sitting in his most effective position just in front of the back four. Jason Cundy on Chelsea TV recently described him as Makelele with batteries! With Willian and Hazard taking wider attacking positions it was Matic and Oscar pushing down the middle, with Diego Costa in his favoured position at the head of the attack. On the bench were Begovic, Loftus-Cheek, Fabregas, Pedro, and so good to see Victor Moses included alongside talented youth player Ola Aina and another new boy a Michy Batshuayi.
Greeted by a super display in the colours of the Italian flag in the Matthew Harding Upper, in honour of our new manager, the players arrived on the pitch to the familiar sounds of the Liquidator. There was a buzz about the place, the game against London rivals eagerly anticipated.
As we kicked off playing in the opposite direction it was good to see a leaner and hopefully meaner outfit, and it didn’t take long for our pocket dynamo to get stuck in on Andy Carroll, twice the Frenchman’s height and half his speed! The first yellow card of the new campaign from referee Anthony Taylor.
A pretty even game, strong challenges going in from both sides, and noticeable how quick and decisive we were on the break, and we nearly opened the scoring when Branislav Ivanovic jinked his way past their defender for a shot on goal, only for Adrian to turn his close effort round his post.
As the half wore on we were upping the pace and another of successive pushes into the box saw Oscar hit the deck under a challenge from Reid. Difficult to see if it was a decent shout but Diego Costa seemed to think so and got himself booked for sprinting half the length of the pitch to give the ref the benefit of his own view on the matter.
But we had to wait until the 30 minute mark before another decent attempt on goal, when Eden Hazard took the ball and ran with it into the box only to see his shot on goal skip past the far post. An enjoyable enough game but it needed a goal to bring it to life and while we were moving the ball around nicely enough, the attempts on goal were lacking. An end of half flurry of chances were created including a decent textbook Willian free kick that needed stopping by the keeper, but half time came with the scores remaining at 0-0.
During the half time break so good to see a well loved Chelsea old boy Ricardo Carvalho take to the pitch, and he received a very warm welcome indeed, his efforts pairing with JT at the centre of our defence still fresh in many fans’ memories.
With the teams back on the pitch and just a minute into the second half it was all action in their box, Costa with a point blank shot stopped by Adrian just before Azpi was tripped in the box – penalty! Up stepped Eden Hazard who blasted the ball down the centre and into the roof of the net. Just what we and the match needed.
The game certainly picked up now, and the home crowd picked up as well, the buzz of the game getting louder. We were moving the ball around confidently, strong interceptions, decisive diagonal balls and probing threaded passing, all adding up to some real positive play.
It was just after the hour when one of those passages of play was nearly rewarded with a second goal, a great pass by Oscar finding Willian running into the box and whose shot had to be diverted away from goal by the keeper. So close.
Shortly after came the inevitable Costa crime when our Diego got himself embroiled with Adrian as their keeper found himself caught with the ball on the edge of the 6 yard box. Of course our goal hungry man was going to go for it and looks as if he caught him on the leg. It didn’t look good, but nice of Mark Noble (not!) to encourage the ref to pull out a second yellow, but thankfully he was having none of it.
But while the score remained at just 1-0 we were always vulnerable to an equaliser despite us being the more superior team in every area of the pitch. And we might have rued the chances not taken and the decisions not given, the Willian free kick on 70 minutes that was elbowed by a West Ham player in the wall was totally ignored by the referee. And since the introduction of Payet, West Ham had a potential goal in them every time they were awarded a free kick within his striking distance, and with 15 minutes left on the clock the desperation found them resorting to Andy Carroll taking a kick to the head by Azpi, which didn’t actually happen despite him dramatically clutching his pretty face and his top knot! With boos ringing round they took the corner and a rebounding ball eventually fell to James Collins, who planted it straight past our defence, past Courtois and into the back of the net. And fair play to the chirpy Eastenders for celebrating that equaliser like they’d scored against Real Madrid!
With that our first substitution, Willian taken off and replaced by Pedro, shortly followed by a debut for Batshuayi, replacing Oscar and Moses on the Eden Hazard. Five minutes left to play.
All frantic and all Chelsea, the new guys on the pitch having an immediate impact, a great cross in by Moses leading to a low shot on goal by Pedro just going wide. Great to see us not settling for the draw and actually fighting for the winner.
And in the last minute of regular time that winner came, a great long high ball from Matic in our own half finding the head of Batshuayi, who simply nodded it into the path of Costa as he was running towards the box and with the space to shoot he sent the ball through the legs of James Collins and into the back of the net, Adrian unable to get near it. Cue delirious scenes of joy – Conte throwing himself into the family stand while the boys were throwing themselves at our fans in the Shed. What a goal and what a celebration, worth celebrating against any lowly opposition. Shame a few people around me had left early and missed it!
So a nail biting few minutes of stoppage time, feisty tackles flying in everywhere, but we held out and the whistle finally blew, to chalk up a deserved opening win of the campaign. We had West Ham on the ropes for much of the game, we nullified the lukewarm threat of Andy Carroll with their defence often resorting to hoofing the ball away to prevent our progress towards goal.
So many positives to take from the game, enjoyable to watch, quick, positive passing, the vision to switch the ball and actually not afraid to go forward. Even the corners were better! But while it was a great team effort, to my mind it was the influence of Kante that made the biggest difference to our set up, breaking up play and swiftly moving the ball forward, enabling us to move up the pitch quickly and decisively. And there’s still so much more to come, far from the finished and polished team we want to be. Things can only get better. Forza Conte!
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