Conte and Chelsea give up the fight

Chelsea never look like a side har­bour­ing hopes of a top four place

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer - Louise Tay­lor at St James’s Park

An­to­nio Conte be­gan the af­ter­noon in highly an­i­mated form in the tech­ni­cal area and, for a while, be­came al­most hys­ter­i­cal be­fore his mood fi­nally mor­phed into sulky ac­cep­tance.

Long be­fore the end, Chelsea’s man­ager’s had be­come oddly static as he stood arms folded, ex­pres­sion dis­con­so­late, on the touch­line.

Maybe they were sav­ing them­selves for the FA Cup fi­nal but Conte’s play­ers never looked like a side which kicked off har­bour­ing out­side hopes of a top four place.

Ul­ti­mately Liver­pool’s de­mo­li­tion of Brighton en­sured Chelsea were al­ways des­tined to fin­ish fifth but a per­for­mance dom­i­nated by Newcastle’s out­stand­ing Jonjo Shelvey, Mo Di­amé and Ay­oze Pérez was hardly what their man­ager would have wanted on what seems al­most cer­tain to have been his fi­nal Premier League match in charge of Lon­don’s most politi­cised club.

Rafael Benítez and Newcastle are no strangers to play­ing pol­i­tics and his fu­ture here is far from cer­tain but, as he con­tin­ues vi­tal con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions with Mike Ash­ley, the owner, Benítez can­not fail to be swayed by the cho­ruses of “stand up if you love Rafa” and “Rafa Benítez we want you to stay,” which echoed, evoca­tively, to the rafters.

Newcastle ended by se­cur­ing 10th place but started as if they were the side pur­su­ing Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion and ini­tially piled on so much pres­sure that Chelsea could barely es­cape their own half.

As the deci­bel level height­ened and the in­ten­sity of the home tempo turned fe­ro­cious Thibaut Cour­tois did well to re­pel both Shelvey’s vi­cious 22-yard half vol­ley and a sub­se­quent an­gle Di­amé shot from the edge of the area.

Chelsea were in near to­tal dis­ar­ray, with the lesser spot­ted Ross Barkley – mak­ing a rare start – strug­gling to get any­where near the ball in midfield. Part of that was down to the re­al­ity that, along­side Di­amé, Shelvey was prov­ing one of the game’s two most in­flu­en­tial fig­ures.

Benítez will de­ter­mine Dwight Gayle’s fu­ture in the next few weeks and it could well be away from Ty­ne­side. If so, Newcastle’s lone striker signed off by giv­ing his side a de­served lead.

It orig­i­nated with a Shelvey pass which picked out Matt Ritchie. Along with Shelvey, Di­amé and Pérez, Ritchie was in splen­did form, pulling Chelsea all over the place and, once again, he con­founded Conte’s de­fence cour­tesy of a left-footed cross from the right.

All that re­mained was for Ja­cob Mur­phy to at­tempt to, some­what au­da­ciously, lob Cour­tois and the goal­keeper to dis­mis­sively palm the ball clear – but only as far as Gayle who pro­ceeded to head into the empty net.

By now Conte ap­peared in genuine peril of tech­ni­cal area im­plo­sion. In pointed con­trast, Benítez seemed an oa­sis of calm, typ­i­cally cel­e­brat­ing the goal by giv­ing his glasses a pol­ish be­fore sum­mon­ing Ja­maal Las­celles over for a de­tailed tac­ti­cal dis­cus­sion.

Des­per­a­tion

Shelvey’s des­per­a­tion to play for Eng­land at the World Cup was per­haps man­i­fested in a glo­ri­ous ad­vance show­cas­ing his clever, quick feet which should have ended in Newcastle’s sec­ond goal but in­stead high­lighted the mid­fielder’s un­for­tu­nate knack of in­vari­ably shoot­ing wildly off tar­get.

As Shelvey’s shot arced over the bar and he clutched his head in his hands, Conte’s mood dark­ened.

His side had been so ap­palling that his only con­so­la­tion was that a sub­se­quently stel­lar save from Cour­tois to deny Gayle and a very near miss from Pérez dic­tated that the score re­mained 1-0 at half time.

Pre­sum­ably ad­her­ing to Conte’s half time homily, they livened up in the sec­ond half, with Eden Hazard be­lat­edly be­gin­ning to im­pose his tal­ent on pro­ceed­ings.

Martin Dubravka had been out­stand­ing for Newcastle since ar­riv­ing on loan from Sparta Prague in Jan­uary and, backped­dling, the goal­keeper per­formed won­ders to claw Olivier Giroud’s highly ac­com­plished, goal­bound, back­heel,to safety fol­low­ing the striker’s con­nec­tion with Hazard’s cross.

Suit­ably warned Newcastle re­sponded by scor­ing a sec­ond. Again Shelvey was the cre­ator.

In­deed his volleyed con­nec­tion with a half-cleared cross would prob­a­bly have flown past Cour­tois had Pérez not flicked out a boot to ap­ply the fi­nal touch to en­sure its’ pas­sage into the back of the net.

Although Dubravka per­formed won­ders to keep a Barkley shout out with his legs, Pérez soon scored again.

This time, Shelvey whipped a free kick in and Flo­rian Le­je­une slipped it to the Spaniard to beat Cour­tois from six yards.

Chelsea man­ager An­to­nio Conte: mood mor­phed into sulky ac­cep­tance

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