Watford Exploit Chelsea’s Winter of Discontent
‘Twas the season to be jolly, and the mood in The Rose pub, a brisk five minute walk from Stamford Bridge, was somewhat more sanguine than press reports might have led us to believe it would be. The mood of Chelsea supporters had doubtless been lifted by the ongoing travails of Manchester United, whose lunchtime defeat at Stoke City was being met with smirks of recognition and not a little relief that attention towards their deficiencies was being a little more equitably distributed as the year comes to its end, yet still the lunchtime conversation was largely about what to do with this stuttering Chelsea team. Has the hold that Eden Hazard seemed to have over Premier League defenders been broken? Was too much expectation now being placed upon the shoulders of one of the few players who had handled himself with distinction throughout this so far dismal campaign, Willian? Might Diego Costa, their brooding talisman of the night, be thinking of quitting this listing ship? The Chelsea support remains tetchy, and questions of how they should deal with newly promoted Watford, a match which would at any other time over the last decade have been considered no more than a sedate stroll to three points, were largely met with a shrug of the shoulders.
Inside Stamford Bridge, it was the Watford supporters who were still enjoying an extended Christmas party. Seventh in the Premier League and with an attacking pairing that had recently made a mockery of Liverpool’s pretensions towards gegenpressing, they have much to be happy about at the moment. They were here almost this time last year in the Third Round of the FA Cup and were brushed aside by three goals to nil. At the time, Chelsea were ambling towards the Premier League title whilst Watford were on the fringes of a familiarly chaotic Championship promotion mudwrestle. But the world can change a lot in twelve months. Watford are starting to wonder whether a return to the nights of European football enjoyed in the middle of the 1980s might even be possible next season. Chelsea, meanwhile, are enduring the worst Premier League title defence since Leeds United’s first Premier League season, a little more than twenty years ago.
At least, I’m reliably informed, the atmosphere wasn’t as poisonous as it was during the first post-Jose match against Sunderland last week. The Departed One still hangs over Stamford Bridge like a cloud, but there’s a feeling that the grey skies might slowly be starting to disperse after the disruption of his sacking. When the team selections are read out over the Public Address system there are still some boos for Costa and Cesc Fabregas, the perceived villains of the first acts of this season, but these condemnations feel stifled, as if they’re being aimed towards the ground rather than directed at the players themselves. A couple of flags still fly in support of Mourinho, but these feel a little like Christmas decorations that somebody has forgotten to take down, whilst the few songs celebrating the former manager feel more as if they’re sung with nostalgia than defiance or anger, in the manner of the defensive reflex reactions that we’re all capable of when times are hard.
For much of the duration of the first half hour or so, where Watford have been getting things right of late was very much in evidence. Capoue and Watson were muscular in midfield, whilst Deeney and Ighalo were fluid in attack. Chelsea dominated possession without often looking likely to penetrate, and when they did take the lead after thirty-two minutes the goal came, yet again, from a set piece. Willian, through whom most of their best football was channelled all afternoon, swung over a corner and, rolling back the months for a few moments, John Terry nodded the ball down for Costa to sweep the ball past Heurelho Gomes and into the roof of the goal. Not quite redemption, but detente, at least. If grabbing the lead soothed some internecine tensions, however, this newly found spirit of goodwill didn’t last very long. Ten minutes after Chelsea took the lead, Matic needlessly waved his hand at a cross from the right. In the stand, all eyes swivelled around to the television screens that now have black tape stuck over the Samsung logos, but cries of indignation turned to groans of familiar despair upon seeing the replay. Troy Deeney stroked the resulting penalty in to bring Watford level at half-time.
Watford tails were up, and the start of the second half saw the visitors continuing to expose the growing insecurities of their hosts. Thibaut Courtois and John Terry were both pushed to their defensive best to block shots Etienne Capoue, but the respite was only temporary, and eleven minutes in Ighalo’s deflected shot – more than a little fortunate in some respects, thoroughly deserved in others – wrong-footed the goalkeeper to give Watford the lead. Cue levels of pandemonium in the away end that have become rather more familiar to Chelsea supporters than most home supporters be comfortable with, but Watford’s excitement would only last for nine minutes before a few seconds of brilliance brought the home side level again. Willian’s diagonal pass was weighted and placed to perfection. Costa’s control and sangfroid finish was enough to empty most Chelsea heads of the manager that got away for a moment, at least.
With the noise of the crowd finally swelling behind them, Chelsea finally started to find a little of the rhythm that they’ve been struggling for so much of late, but this match would yet come to be defined by a moment of low, low comedy. Eden Hazard, introduced as a substitute earlier on, jinked into the Watford penalty area and was clumsily hacked to the ground by another substitute, Valon Behrami. We might have expected Diego Costa, on a hat-trick and showing signs of channelling his aggression in an altogether more productive direction than he has seemed to of late, to step up and exorcise some demons, but Oscar grabbed the ball, placed it down, attempted a soft shoe shimmy shuffle, lost his footing and ballooned the ball high into the Matthew Harding Stand behind the goal. With the balloon of optimism deflated again Costa lunged into a tackle that might have earned a red card – as it is, a yellow card is enough for him to miss tomorrow night’s battle of the underachievers at Old Trafford, punishment enough for a bad challenge – whilst Watford might still have nicked all three points with a couple of chances towards the end.
With the full-time whistle came the feeling that both teams might have cause to believe that they deserved all three points. Watford remain in seventh place in the table, with pre-season tribulations over a war of attrition to avoid relegation starting to feel like a fading memory. Chelsea, meanwhile, continue to take as many steps back as they do forward. The volume of possession that clubs of their ilk are allowed to retain these days gives the impression of a team that is fully in control, but this wasn’t really the case at Stamford Bridge yesterday afternoon and it’s clear that Guus Hiddinck still has considerable confidence to breathe back into a team that feels psychologically fragile. Watford, meanwhile, celebrated at the full time whistle as if they’d won the cup, but in the cold light of this morning may even feel a little disappointed at allowing Chelsea to peg them back after having come from behind to take the lead. As we streamed from Stamford Bridge into an unseasonably warm December evening, with the new year looming and the first half of the Premier League season having asked far more questions than it has answered, we might reflect upon this match as a reflection of this new – and, if we’re honest with ourselves, most likely temporary – reality.
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