Saturday ended Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1.
Newcastle falling behind after only nine minutes but showing good character and determination to stick at it and deservedly equalise before half-time.
A class goal from Willian helped by slack NUFC defending deciding the game, as Rafa’s makeshift team were unlucky to come away without a point.
The Editor asked me beforehand to write about 3 positives and 3 negatives from the game, so here goes…
Despite suffering what was an inevitable defeat, this was one of Newcastle’s better performances of the season. As has often been the case in recent months, the back five performed admirably only to be undone by minor errors and lapses in concentration.
As with our recent defeats to Liverpool and Manchester United, Chelsea never needed to get out of second gear and didn’t have to exert themselves too much to seal the win but the big difference at Stamford Bridge, was in Newcastle’s ambition and threat going forward. We were genuinely in the game for the entire 90 minutes, fashioned a number of clear-cut opportunities and arguably deserved a point.
Despite failing to hit the target when presented with a couple of good chances, Salomón Rondón led the line well and brought team-mates into play and our untested midfield pairing of Sean Longstaff and Isaac Hayden covered a lot of ground, made numerous timely interceptions and played some good incisive passes.
Not quite ‘triumph in adversity’ but encouraging nonetheless to put in one of our most competent performances in months, against one of the league’s strongest sides at a time when our already flimsy squad was at its most threadbare.
Having played his only first team football of the season so far in last weekend’s bore draw with Blackburn, it was a bit of a surprise to see Florian Lejeune thrown in at the deep end at Stamford Bridge, but the Frenchman hit the ground running and performed very well against tough opposition.
Lejeune was our best defender last season and his untimely injury in pre-season was a cruel blow that hit Rafa’s plans hard. Despite Fabian Schär and Federico Fernández putting in a number of impressive performances in the meantime, Lejeune’s absence has been keenly felt – not least because he has such a good understanding with Jamaal Lascelles and his presence raises our captain’s game.
With all his centre backs now fit and raring to go, it will be interesting to see what Rafa decides to do. Weaknesses in other areas of the squad mean that he will probably decide to make use of his relative wealth of riches in defensive positions and stick with a back five for the foreseeable future.
Lejeune’s selection here hints that he may well be the first name on the team-sheet from now on, leaving two positions up for grabs. One spot, surely, is earmarked for Lascelles as captain but there are no guarantees and Rafa has dropped him before.
Interestingly, a recent survey of nearly 4,000 fans on Nufcblog.com voted Fernández as our best centre back (37%), closely followed by Lejeune (34%) with Fabian Schär coming in third (17%) – Lascelles languishing in fourth place with just 11% of the overall vote.
Cardiff up next…
Our woeful home form notwithstanding, next week’s visit of Cardiff City offers us a great chance to get three points on the board and to start plotting our course to Premier League survival.
The fixture list has been particularly unkind this season with several runs of tough games meaning that we’ve had very little chance to build any momentum, bar our solid streak in November.
Man City and Spurs are up next after Neil Warnock’s side visit St James’ Park, meaning that even a win next Saturday is unlikely to offer us the chance of going on an unbeaten run and our momentum will be interrupted once more, but we need to view games in isolation and look at the bigger picture when up against our relegation rivals.
The drab draw with Fulham before Christmas was an opportunity lost but the silver lining was that we didn’t lose. Similarly, Kenedy’s last minute penalty miss at Cardiff back in autumn was hugely disappointing but we still came away with a point. In the grand scheme of things at the end of the season, not having lost these ‘6 pointers’ may well prove vital.
Although Cardiff have fared better so far than many may have imagined they would, a home game against a newly-promoted side theoretically offers us one of our best chances of a win all season. Here’s hoping that Rafa and the lads can take heart from their performance at Stamford Bridge and hit the ground running next weekend…
End of an era
Rafa’s quotes in the press in the lead-up to this match seemed to be tinged with regret and the prevailing sense of a golden opportunity wasted. He spoke of his desire to stay on and continue with the project but, reading between the lines, it sounded like he was confirming that he’s on his way out.
Little did anyone think when Rafa arrived back in March 2016 that it would end like this. One of the world’s elite coaches fell into Mike Ashley’s lap and spoke of his desire to build the club from the bottom up – it was more than we could ever have dreamed of. However, Ashley’s dereliction of duty has seen an ideal scenario turn sour and only Rafa’s pragmatism and conscientiousness have managed to keep the fans onside and prevent a toxic meltdown.
Professional pride means that Benítez won’t abandon ship before the season’s end, and a desire to ensure that his CV isn’t blotted with two relegations in just over three years, means that he will work tirelessly to try to avoid the drop – fortune and circumstance again favouring Ashley when he least deserves it.
Whether survival would, ultimately, be a good thing or not entirely depends on if a takeover ever actually happens – the smart money, sadly, being on Ashley staying in charge and hiring a washed-up manager like Mark Hughes or David Moyes to take the helm on his sinking ship, while Rafa heads off into the sunset, chastened by his dealings with our buffoonish owner. A sad end to what, at first, seemed a match made in heaven.
Conceding the first goal
Saturday’s defeat means it is now 11 league games so far this season where Newcastle have conceded the opening goal and then gone on to lose the match.
While we came back to equalise against Chelsea and actually played very well over the course of the 90 minutes, we still left empty-handed, just as we have done every other time that we’ve conceded first in the league this season – Matt Ritchie’s penalty-spot equaliser in our recent draw at home to Blackburn meaning that we at least managed to buck the trend against lower league opposition in the FA Cup. Regardless of how well they have performed in defeat, however, stats like this can only damage the players’ already-fragile confidence and undermine their hopes of pulling clear of relegation trouble.
The team are not without fight and determination – as shown by the fact that we’ve at least managed to equalise against Spurs, Man City and now Chelsea twice before ultimately losing – but Rafa will be keen to come away with at least a point from a game where we fall behind ASAP to help us build momentum and confidence as we head into the business end of the season.
Although they all remain within touching distance, Crystal Palace, Southampton and Burnley’s recent revivals have seen them pick up 10, 10 and 9 points respectively from their last 6 games to pull clear of trouble and leave Newcastle languishing in the relegation zone, a point behind our next opponents, Cardiff City, whose failure to beat Huddersfield at home was a bonus for us on a day when other results went against us.
With Man City and Spurs up after that, a win in the Cardiff game would be a massive boost to our survival hopes. With Huddersfield looking all but doomed and Claudio Ranieri’s arrival at Fulham not quite having the desired impact, two of the relegation places look like they may already have been decided, leaving Newcastle and three or four other sides to fight it out to avoid the final one.
While we all know that it’s your position in the table after game #38 that counts, failure to beat Cardiff next Saturday would mean that we’re hugely likely to be cut adrift from safety until at least late February – when Huddersfield and Burnley both make the trip up to Tyneside within four days of each other.
I think we all accept that we’ll be in a relegation dogfight until the bitter end but managing to keep our noses above water and hovering above the relegation zone, would at least be a big psychological boost for the players. Only a win next weekend will provide us with any respite.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1
Chelsea: Pedro 9, Willian 57
Newcastle: Clark 40
Possession was Chelsea 66% Newcastle 34%
Total shots were Chelsea 10 Newcastle 9
Shots on target were Chelsea 6 Newcastle 2
Corners were Chelsea 8 Newcastle 5
Referee: Chris Kavanagh
Dubravka, Yedlin (Manquillo 82), Lejeune, Lascelles, Clark, Ritchie, Hayden, Longstaff, Perez (Murphy 82), Atsu, Rondon
Woodman, Joselu, Schar, Fernandez, Sterry
(David Pleat reviews the match HERE)
(Instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to Chelsea 2 Newcastle 1 HERE)
(Match ratings and comments on all NUFC players v Chelsea HERE)
(Maurizio Sarri says his players thought it was too easy – Read HERE)