Antonio Conte’s Chelsea got their title defence off to the worst possible start, succumbing to a humiliating 2-3 loss against a clinical Burnley side.
The opening weekend has had the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal get stretched to their limit in their first fixtures of the new season and this clash proved to be no different. The most shocking result of the weekend so far, this game had it all – goals, red card(s) and controversial refereeing.
Chelsea, despite their injury concerns going into this tie were never supposed to be troubled by Burnley, who finished 16th last season and lost two big names in the transfer window. However, games aren’t won on paper and referee Craig Pawson’s decisions ensured that he would earn a place in all the headlines which would follow.
Gary Cahill’s early sending off resulted in the Blues imploding 10 minutes later. Sam Vokes helped himself to a first half double and Stephen Ward scored an absolute belter to send the visitors up three goals to the good at the end of the first half.
The Blues, with their renewed vigour in the second half pulled one back thanks to a well taken Alvaro Morata header, but again lost momentum after Cesc Fabregas’ sending off. They managed to score another with a neat finish from David Luiz in the 88th minute, but the task ultimately proved too great for 9 men.
The Hard Tackle takes a look at some of the main talking points from Burnley’s shocking victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Craig Pawson Takes Center Stage
This outcome of this tie would have likely been a very different one, had it not been for some of the decisions taken by referee Craig Pawson. Arguably the man of the match, his decision to send off Gary Cahill was undoubtedly the turning point of the match.
The controversial decisions came early. A very early booking for Marcos Alonso, unnecessary free-kicks against Jeremie Boga and then Cesc Fabregas, which led to the Spaniard’s sarcastic applause and subsequent booking. Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger weren’t spared either.
In hindsight, Cahill’s tackle could’ve resulted a yellow card at best, given that it was so early in the game. The Blues could never recover until much later as a result of that decision and just when they looked like they were hitting their stride, Fabregas got sent off with 10 minutes to go.
Chants of ‘3-1 to the referee’ rang around Stamford Bridge, which ultimately culminated in a crescendo of boos from the 40,000 odd Chelsea fans in attendance, seething in anger.
Vokes and Tarkowski Step Up For Clinical, Composed Clarets
Pawson’s decisions aside, take nothing away from Burnley for their performance. They stuck to their game, trusted their ability, played to their strengths, frustrated Chelsea and took their chances when they came. They kept their wits about them and were duly rewarded for it with all 3 points.
As the goals kept coming and the Chelsea players kept departing, it would have been easy to get complacent and take their foot off the pedal. But Sean Dyche’s men stuck to their defensive game, letting Chelsea come at them before making their way forward in the counter. Two players, in particular, were impressive for the visitors.
Questions were raised about how they would be able to survive without having signed replacements for arguably two of their best players from last season having sold Andre Gray and Michael Keane. But Sam Vokes and Michael Tarkowski laid those concerns to rest for the time being with match winning performances against Chelsea.
Vokes got on the end of two fantastic crosses from Mattew Lowton and Steven Defour on the either side of a Stephen Ward stunner. Meanwhile, Tarkowski, who spent much of last season on the sidelines due to the emergence of Michael Keane, put in a superb shift to keep the Blues out for much of the game.
The players performed their tasks to near perfection in the first half. Jack Cork kept the midfield tight alongside Jeff Hendrick, allowing Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Robbie Brady to keep Chelsea’s wingers and wingbacks occupied while Steven Defour ran the show from the centre of the park.
Besides sending shockwaves through the Premier League on its opening weekend, this will no doubt give them a huge boost in confidence as they look to maintain their top flight status for another year.
Morata’s Instant Impact
It would be safe to say that Michy Batshuayi isn’t doing himself any favours with performances like that. For most of his 59 minutes spent on the pitch, he seemed lost and at times overwhelmed by the constant pressure put on him by the Burnley defence.
He wasn’t able to hold up the ball for his teammates well enough and often physically overpowered by a Burnley side who were growing in confidence over the course of the match. And, Alvaro Morata’s near perfect Premier League debut certainly won’t help his cause.
In a recent interview with MARCA, Chelsea’s new £60 million signing stated that his critics were already ‘killing’ him after his brief performances during pre-season and Chelsea’s loss in the Community Shield to Arsenal and has insisted that he has the ‘personality’ to lead the line for the Blues.
Having barely featured for Chelsea since signing for them, doubts were raised about his fitness and he barely had time to make an impact against Arsenal last week. However, Morata’s performance was one of the very few positives that Conte can take away from this tie.
The Spaniard got on the scoresheet 10 minutes after his introduction to raise the roof off of Stamford Bridge. He was involved in nearly every good move for Chelsea going forward and he capped off a promising debut with a superb assist for David Luiz to net Chelsea’s third.
With this performance, Morata is almost certain to start next week at Wembley against Tottenham Hotspur. Given Chelsea’s injury crisis and lack of squad depth, Conte will hope that the 24-year-old continues to build on his promising debut against their arch rivals.
Chances For Chelsea’s Youth
Now that Fabregas and Cahill will be serving suspensions, the Italian has lost even more options in midfield and defence. Both of them will miss next week’s tie against Tottenham Hotspur, joining Eden Hazard, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Pedro on the sidelines.
While Cahill will only be able to play again in September, there are no set return dates for Hazard, Bakayoko and Pedro just yet. While it is clear that more signings are needed at Stamford Bridge soon, until they arrive, Conte has no options but to depend on his youth.
The Blues’ youth policy in recent years has been well documented and criticized, But now is the chance for the youngsters to step up and make their case to the manager – not an opportunity many are afforded at Stamford Bridge. Jeremie Boga and Charly Musonda, will almost certainly have to be called into action next week.
Boga time on the pitch was unfortunately cut short due to Cahill’s sending off, but he will likely retain his place in the starting XI due to lack of midfield options. Musonda may also find himself thrown into the mix while Christensen will likely feature a lot more due to Cahill’s suspension.
Chelsea fans have always clamoured for more opportunities to be given to their youngsters, but perhaps not in the current circumstances. Their youth aren’t short of talent or potential, however, and they may never get an opportunity like this again in the near future.
Champions Show Character
Conte mentioned in his post-match press conference at how pleased he was with his side’s second half performance, acknowledging that it was a difficult result to turn around and insisted he was proud of the ‘great will and desire’ of his players.
The Blues may be short on personnel for the time being, but if this match was anything to go by, they certainly aren’t lacking in fight. While they did take some time to recover from the early shocks in the first half, the Premier League champions bounced back in the second half and put up an admirable fight.
They never stopped trying even after Fabregas got sent off late in the game and continue to launch attacks at Tom Heaton’s goal. Had the Blues shown that level of urgency in the first half, the match might have even ended in their favour.
The fact that they chose to go down fighting has clearly pleased Conte. This start was by no means ideal, but perhaps it could serve as a good wake-up call to the champions.
They will no doubt need some of this tenacity when they come up against arch rivals Tottenham next week, as a victory in their first London derby of the season will surely boost their confidence and get them up and running.