Hazard delivers Chelsea vital win over West Brom in chase for the top four
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Chelsea's 3-0 Premier League victory over West Brom at Stamford Bridge on Monday.
1. Vital win buys Conte time
Until the last week, Chelsea's disappointing season had never quite ventured into the realm of crisis. The ease with which Bournemouth and Watford dispatched of the reigning Premier League champions, however, hinted at terminal decline and left Antonio Conte's immediate future in serious doubt.
Chelsea have no desire to part with Conte before the summer, regardless of how many times he needles them publicly about transfer policy. Failing to finish in the Premier League's top four, however, is an outcome they will not tolerate, and the Blues kicked off against West Brom in fifth.
The anxiety was palpable in the stands and on the pitch, despite Conte's decision to restore the unflappable Andreas Christensen to defence and hand Olivier Giroud his first Chelsea start up front. West Brom sensed their opponents' nerves and pushed forward, dominating the opening minutes.
Not even the loss of Daniel Sturridge to injury after three minutes deterred Alan Pardew's men, and fortune smiled on Chelsea. Victor Moses' header back to Thibaut Courtois fell short and Jay Rodriguez raced through on goal, before inexplicably shooting first time and screwing his effort well wide.
The moment appeared to stir Chelsea a little, and Davide Zappacosta fired straight at Ben Foster from Cesar Azpilicueta's searching cross before Eden Hazard found Giroud unmarked in the box, only for the Frenchman to scuff straight at the West Brom goalkeeper.
Hazard, as ever, was at the heart of Chelsea's most fluid attacks and he broke the deadlock in style on 25 minutes, bouncing a pass off Giroud and slotting nervelessly beyond Foster. Stamford Bridge cheered, then exhaled.
Giroud seemed determined to be the "point of reference" Chelsea have sorely lacked in recent weeks at any cost; his tussle with West Brom defenders punctuated by an accidental kick to the head from Ahmed Hegazi left him with a bandaged head.
Chelsea led, but did not feel secure. Even the unflappable Christensen was seemingly not immune to the anxiety, dallying on the ball until he was dispossessed as the last man by Salomon Rondon, whose shot was smothered into the side netting by Courtois.
Conte howled at every misplaced pass and hurried clearance, prowling the edge of his technical area in contrast to his subdued display at Vicarage Road. Alvaro Morata replaced Giroud on the hour and soon after Chelsea had their breathing space -- a Fabregas deflected flick falling kindly for Moses, who slotted in.
West Brom heads dropped and Hazard provided the final flourish, jinking in from the right and lashing a left-footed shot in at the near post. Stamford Bridge chanted Conte's name and he acknowledged their adoration with applause, welcoming some timely respite.
2. Chelsea will go as far as Hazard takes them
This victory, crucial though it was, does not change the fact that Chelsea approach the defining stretch of their season at their lowest ebb.
The 3-4-3 formation that no one in the Premier League could find an answer for last season has lost its element of surprise; almost every opponent now lines up with three at the back and knows exactly where to press to cut off Chelsea's passing angles into midfield.
As the effectiveness of the system has waned, so has the players' confidence in what Conte calls "our idea of football". A once-solid defence now creaks at the merest hint of pressure, while central midfield is lacking in dynamism when Fabregas plays and imagination when he does not.
The result of this staleness is that, in attack, Hazard is increasingly expected to provide both the creativity and the cutting edge. His double on Monday took his tally in 2018 to seven goals; the rest of the Chelsea squad have eight combined.
Such dependency is not what Conte needs with Barcelona looming large in the Champions League round of 16, followed by matches on the road against Manchester United and Manchester City in the Premier League that could push the minimum expectation of a top-four finish even further away.
Nor is it in Chelsea's interests as they attempt to convince their one transcendent attacking talent in contract negotiations that west London, and not Madrid, is the best place to spend the rest of his prime years.
At present, however, it seems that unless Morata can rediscover the fitness and swagger of autumn quickly, Chelsea will face the most testing month of a gruelling season with the man in the No. 10 shirt bearing most of the burden.
3. Fragile Sturridge not West Brom's solution
Two thirds of the way into this Premier League season, only Swansea City have scored fewer goals (20) than West Brom (21). It was easy to see, then, why Pardew would jump at the chance to acquire a 28-year-old striker with 74 Premier League goals and 26 England caps to his name.
Pardew described the arrival of Sturridge on loan from Liverpool as a "big coup" for West Brom. That, however, would only be true in a world where muscles do not tear, joints do not sprain and the bodies of athletes do not betray their minds.
Much to the sadness of anyone who watched him in full flow for Liverpool, Sturridge has been a theoretical weapon for some time now; he has started no more than 11 matches in each of the past four Premier League seasons.
When he crumpled to the ground clutching his hamstring inside the first three minutes at Stamford Bridge, the only thing sadder than the universal lack of surprise was the distraught expression he wore on his sullen trudge down the tunnel.
Jurgen Klopp once imfamously remarked that Sturridge needed to learn "what is serious pain and what is only pain". Regardless of whether there is a psychological element to his ordeal, every new setback makes it increasingly unlikely that we will ever again see the striker who tore up the Premier League alongside Luis Suarez in 2013-14.
Pardew's thoughts will now move to how he can get more from arguably the least intimidating array of attacking options in the division. On the evidence provided by Rondon and Rodriguez at Stamford Bridge on Monday, there are no easy solutions available to him.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.