Like most of you I’m sure, it didn’t take me long to file the ‘Eden Hazard to PSG’ rumours into the pile marked ‘pretty fucking unlikely’. The insinuation that Chelsea might be a ‘selling club’ in relation to the French side was ridiculous enough, but the involvement in the rumour of such a key player helped it qualify for the sort of sneering deconstruction it was given by Jose Mourinho this weekend. Yesterday against Hull City, and for the third game in succession, Hazard was incredible and by a distance, the best player on the pitch.
Last autumn, the performances of Juan Mata were, in my opinion, the most consistently brilliant ever produced by a Chelsea player in the Premier League over such a substantial period of time. From the middle of September to the end of October, the Spaniard was the best player in the country and simply unplayable. It was a spell of form I didn’t anticipate anyone to come close to replicating for some time, but the performances of Hazard in his last four Premier League games (against Swansea, Liverpool, Southampton and Hull) have been equally spectacular, and if they can continue this month going into the games against the Manchester Clubs, the Belgian will have likely nailed down the ‘Chelsea Player of the Year Award’ for 2014, before February.
His goal yesterday was his 11th of the season and was the decisive moment in what was our fourth consecutive league victory – the first time we’ve managed such a streak this season. The game followed what’s become a familiar pattern where our first half play is intense but measured and careful so as to maintain as much control over possession and the pace of the game as possible. Then in the second half we increased the directness of our attacking moves, taking more risks, and doing more to exert the extra quality we enjoy. And then adapting to clever and effective counter attacking game which allowed us to sit comfortably on the lead and eventually seal the game late on.
Sensibly I think, given the extent to which Hull rely on the brawn and robustness of their methods to compete against the division’s top sides, Mourinho selected what is probably our most athletic/mobile XI, with David Luiz in midfield next to Ramires – Mikel was dropped to the bench having not trained on Thursday or Friday, attending the African player of the Year Award. The backline which kept a clean sheet against Southampton was left untouched. Having conceded only once now in the last five matches, it’ll be interesting to see if Branislav Ivanovic walks straight back into the side, should we manage to maintain this increased solidity with Cole and Azpi at full back.
The first half was relatively chance-free, with both sides pressing each other quite hard and neither looking fluid with their passing. Yannick Sagbo missed Hull’s best chance of the game after a mistake by John Terry left the Ivorian one on one with Cech from about 15 yards. Meanwhile our best chance fell to Oscar, who was denied by a brilliant (though lucky) save by Alan McGregor. The Brazilian was perfectly composed when the ball fell to him in the middle of the penalty area and he it hit well, but the flailing keeper managed to tip it over.
The deadlock was broke in the second half by the type of finish which it seems has replaced the ‘Frank Lampard late run into the box and low shot’ as the archetypal Chelsea goal, the ‘Eden Hazard cut in from the left and right footed finish into the bottom corner’. The Belgian is truly a budding master of that inverted winger position and there are a lot more of those goals to come, no doubt. Fernando Torres sealed the win with his second away league goal in two matches by beating Alex Bruce for pace after the Englishman showed the forward onto his weaker left side – the Spaniard’s left foot still good enough to finish at the near post.
Whenever Chelsea matches are on British television at the minute, the Sky and BT punditry panels all seem to be deliberately hesitant in measuring our title-winning potential this season. The efficiency with which we are beginning to operate and routine with which we’re picking up points, certainly isn’t going unnoticed. When compared to Manchester City however who are just steamrolling opponents at the minute, playing some of the most attractive and devastating counter attacking football in Europe, it is easy to see why Pellegrini’s side are most people’s favourites ahead of ourselves. Whilst even Arsenal at times have managed to play with a brand of collective attacking quality and creativity, admittedly absent from our displays thus far.
The fact we are only a couple of points from topping the table however in spite of having failed to match the performances of our title rivals in these respects, speaks hugely to our credit and means virtually no one has yet wholly dismissed our chances. The evident gradual improvement we’re beginning to see in all areas of the pitch coupled the trophy winning experience of the manager means for the time being, Chelsea are still very much a contender for the Premier League this year. Interestingly this would be the third time in a row we’ve won the league in a World Cup year. (Just an interesting observation)
Finally, the real headline from yesterday’s game was of course Petr Cech breaking Peter Bonetti’s record of clean sheets for the club, surpassing The Cat’s total of 208. The routine brilliance of Cech’s contributions down the years has made it easy to forget for long periods just what an outstanding player he is – comfortably the greatest keeper to ever play for Chelsea, now he needs only another twenty clean sheets to break the Premier League record, currently held by David James. If he continues at his career rate of clean sheets per game, the Czech will have broken James’ record having played an incredible 210 games less! So far he’s managed to avoid conceding in 49% of his career PL matches, which is a record percentage for any keeper to have kept over 100 clean sheets in the division. 2% more than his closest rival, Pepe Reina and a whole 8% higher than the legendary David Seaman and Peter Schmeichel.
Mourinho’s suggestion post-game that the Czech international will surely break the record next year may be the first subtle clue as to whether he’ll remain first choice next season, with Thibaut Courtois’ agent set for crucial talks in the coming weeks. Kevin De Bruyne sadly looks on the verge of leaving for good – hopefully he’s the only uber-talented young Belgian we will lose this year.