LONDON – As Chelseaâ€™s players walked down the tunnel at the end of this occasionally jittery but ultimately comfortable victory against Newcastle United, Stamford Bridge reverberated to cheers as news of Manchester Cityâ€™s draw at Everton came over the PA. There is daylight between Chelsea and their closest rivals once more and, though JosÃ© Mourinho was dissatisfied with some aspects of his sideâ€™s performance, the bottom line is that they are two points clear of City and the title is still theirs to lose.
If City were hoping that Chelseaâ€™s debacle against Tottenham Hotspur on New Yearâ€™s Day would spark a crisis in west London, they were sorely mistaken.
Newcastle were certainly troublesome opponents in the first half and John Carver, their caretaker manager, did not shy away from acclaiming his chances of being appointed on a permanent basis, but the result was never in doubt once Oscar calmed Chelseaâ€™s nerves shortly before half-time. The best sides win when they are not playing well, whereas Newcastle played well but lost for the sixth time in their past eight matches.
Mourinho was not happy with Chelseaâ€™s lethargy before Oscarâ€™s goal, although he left it up to his assistant, Steve Holland, to reveal that some constructive criticism was dealt out during the interval. The Football Associationâ€™s decision to charge Mourinho with misconduct following his comments about a campaign against Chelsea means that we might not hear from him much in the next few weeks. â€œJosÃ© was very clear with what he wanted them to improve, and the players did that,â€ Holland said. â€œHe wanted the team to play further up the pitch and be more aggressive and assertive.â€
Mourinhoâ€™s assessment was as accurate as ever. Chelseaâ€™s aura of invincibility has received a few too many dents for his liking in recent weeks and it was strange to see them outplayed by Newcastle during a first half when the men in blue shirts seemed allergic to keeping the ball.
Chelsea were fortunate that Newcastle were not more ruthless and that Petr Cech, who was making a rare start in goal because of Thibaut Courtoisâ€™s thumb injury, showed no signs of any rust. The expectation was that Newcastle would be on the end of a fearsome backlash from Chelsea, but Cech was forced to remind us of his outstanding qualities more often than Mourinho would have anticipated.
Newcastle were inspired by the memory of their victory against Chelsea at St Jamesâ€™ Park last month and they did not sit back. Instead, driven on by the surges from midfield of Moussa Sissoko and the impish dribbling of RÃ©my Cabella, they were adventurous and dominant for long spells, despite being deprived of several key players because of injuries and the Africa Cup of Nations.
Yoan Gouffranâ€™s firm free-kick was beaten away by Cech, Sissoko crashed a shot against the outside of the post after skipping past John Terry with surprising ease and the Chelsea captain also hung out a leg to deflect Cabellaâ€™s curling shot just past the left post.
Cabellaâ€™s quick feet, daring and ability to ghost past defenders made him Newcastleâ€™s biggest threat and he had their clearest chance. Eden Hazard lost possession and the ball broke to Cabella, who drifted past Terry and then curled a shot towards the bottom-right corner from the edge of the area.
Cech was a sizeable obstacle, but he was not being afforded much protection from his defence. Gary Cahill paid the price for his part in that 5-3 defeat at Tottenham and was replaced by Kurt Zouma, but Chelsea were still unusually open, and their problems increased when CÃ©sar Azpilicueta limped off with a groin injury.
Carver was reflecting on the effectiveness of his gameplan at that point and he must have been encouraged to see Mourinho lose his temper with Diego Costa for his lack of movement as a pass from Cesc FÃ bregas sailed out of play.
There were flashes from Chelsea, however, such as a volley from Oscar that looped wide, and Newcastleâ€™s failure to take their chances made them vulnerable.
The disappointment for Newcastle was that Oscarâ€™s goal was so avoidable. They were not alive to the danger when Chelsea won a corner on the right and Willian quickly tapped it to Branislav Ivanovic, who laid the ball on a plate for Oscar at the far post.
Chelsea were liberated after the goal, playing with greater freedom and authority, and Costa doubled their lead when he finished off a stunning move in the 59th minute. The ball was in the air when Oscar backheeled Hazardâ€™s pass into Costaâ€™s path and he drilled a low shot past the Newcastle goalkeeper, Tim Krul, to score his 15th goal of the season and secure Chelseaâ€™s 10th consecutive league victory at home.
The groans that had been audible from the Chelsea fans in the first half were replaced by triumphant chants about being top of the league, long before Roger Eastâ€™s final whistle. – The Guardian