There was a time, not long ago, when conceding two goals in the first few minutes against a top six side almost guaranteed a hammering. Indeed, Chelsea have inflicted two such high-scoring morale wreckers in the last three years. Say what you will about the first five minutes in yesterday’s season opener, this team is lights years ahead of where it was, even a single year ago.
If you’d picked up the match seven minutes in (and ignored the scoreboard), you would have witnessed a pleasing first-half display of cultured possession football. Crosses were flying in from both sides of the pitch, Victor Moses was enjoying himself, the midfield looked comfortable, and but for a heavy first touch, Di Santo might have scored.
Unfortunately, as Roberto did in his post-match interviews, we must acknowledge those hapless opening exchanges. The match had barely gotten underway when Eden Hazard skilfully — but all too easily — turned Ivan Ramis near the midfield circle and found Branislav Ivanovic with a perfect through ball down the right wing. Chased by Figueroa, who was playing at left wing-back rather than his customary left centre-back position due to an injury to Jean Beausejour, the Chelsea fullback finished coolly past Al-Habsi to make it 1-0. Moments later, Chelsea’s marquee summer signing was causing panic once again, tempting Ramis into a lunge in the penalty box. Referee Mike Jones pointed to the spot and Frank Lampard rarely misses.
It was a tough start for the Spanish centre-back, who is not only adapting to a new country and culture, but a new tactical system with three centre-backs, and faster pace of play. All only a week or so after joining the club, and against the defending European Champions. Midfielders and strikers often get the benefit of being given 15-20 minutes at the end of the match to bed in, as new Ivorian striker Arouna Koné did later on. For Ramis, it was straight into the fire. But he improved as the game went on, and indeed cleared off the line brilliantly to deny Fernando Torres a second-half goal. Despite the mistakes — which were not characteristic of his game in Spain — he showed enough to suggest that once adapted, he will be a good addition.
Jean Beausejour missed his first match through injury since signing for the club in January. In his place, Maynor Figueroa performed well enough to suggest we now have cover, not only for the three centre-back positions, but for the wing-backs on both sides as well. Emmerson Boyce, down the right, was great and just seems to get better with age.
Much of Wigan’s momentum was lost when Shaun Maloney had to be withdrawn with a groin injury early in the second half. Roberto has since admitted both Maloney and MacArthur were taken off with little niggles as a precaution rather than due to serious injuries. Jordi Gomez, Maloney’s replacement, drew fouls and got himself in good positions, but ultimately failed with his finishing. Ben Watson, on for MacArthur, looked a little rusty but is a fine option from the bench. Neither of them filled the void left by Maloney, who along with Moses, has become our creative spark.
Things started to turn Chelsea’s way and a third goal looked likely. But some exciting end-to-end stuff produced Ramis’ aforementioned goal-line clearance and a surging Victor Moses run and cross down the other end. By then Arouna Koné had come on for his Wigan debut, and showed great promise with a trio of decent half-chances. He immediately appeared to have what Di Santo lacks — the movement and instincts necessary to know where to be when a cross comes into the box. Di Santo has just about everything else, but seldom gets on the end of crosses to head, poke, prod, or hammer home.
Wigan finished the match in the ascendancy and were quite unlucky not to emerge goalless. The usual questions will emerge about profligacy in front of goal, but Chelsea won the Champions League on the back of excellent defending (and a healthy slice of luck). They are not easy to break down.
All things considered, this was an encouraging performance. News outlets have of course focused on Hazard and Chelsea’s exciting new strikeforce, but Latics enjoyed more possession, created 15 goal attempts to Chelsea’s six, seven corners to the visitors’ one. The boys played in much the same way they ended last season — minus the defensive intensity in those first few minutes — and the news signings got a game under their belts.
Southampton promises to be a tricky fixture after their near-miss at the Etihad on Sunday. But if we play the way we did for 80 minutes, we’ll be in with a good chance to notch our first points of the season. Stay tuned for The Good, The Bad and Player Ratings, coming soon.