Chelsea escape Toon
Late own goal beats Newcastle as Sarri Ball’s perfect record stays intact
The temperature felt far too low for Italy in August and the rain had a drearily English persistence about it but for, long periods, Maurizio Sarri must have felt convinced he was somehow back in Serie A.
Rafael Benitez preceded Chelsea’s manager at Napoli and, clearly remembering that schooling in Catenaccio, very nearly succeeded in choreographing his Newcastle United side to a tactically astute draw against possession-monopolising visitors.
Instead DeAndre Yedlin’s late own goal dictated that Sarri’s side boarded their flight back to London, with three wins from three Premier League games and standing second in the embryo table, behind Liverpool on goal difference.
Five at the back may be an anathema to Sarri’s football philosophy - otherwise known as Sarri Ball – but Benitez deployed three centre halves as part of a radical re-structure of his team here.
With the captain Jamaal Lascelles and the playmaker Jonjo Shelvey not even on the bench, this home starting X1 featured debuts for Salomon Rondon, Fabian Schar, Ki Sung-yueng and Federico Fernandez.
Shortly before kick off Benitez was forced to deny reports of a training ground row with Lascelles, reportedly over his refusal to offer his skipper the sweeper role, and indicated that Shelvey was injured. With Chelsea rebutting a Sunday Times report that Roman Abramovich is hoping to sell the club, it was turning into something of a day of denials.
Sarri Ball is all about intense pressing and a high defensive line but with a Newcastle side captained by Paul Dummett closing Chelsea down assiduously, this visiting system was unable to operate at anywhere near like maximum power.
Sarri acknowledges his tactics carry “risk” but Newcastle’s cautious 5-4-1 system often left them looking far too timid to get behind that high line.
On the two early occasions when Chelsea’s defence was breached, Jacob Murphy – deputising for the Stamford Bridge loanee winger Kenedy – dispatched a cross into the arms of Kepa Arrizabalaga and then shot straight at the keeper when it would surely have been better to pass to the better placed Dummett.
With the home priority clearly being stopping Chelsea, it would be an understatement to say that Sarri’s players dominated possession.
Yet although the Londoners had the ball for almost 80 per cent of the opening 45 minutes they were not permitted sufficient room for manoeuvre to do too much of note with it.
Admittedly, Jorginho was often impressive at the heart of their 4-3-3 formation and Eden Hazard, starting his first club appearance of the season following the World Cup, ran through a wonderful repertoire of dexterous ball manipulation, defender-spinning swivels and delicate touches but Martin Dubravka was largely underemployed in goal.
While permitting Hazard and friends to strut their stuff made have made for a more entertaining spectacle, it would surely not have done too much for a Newcastle goal difference which, come the end of the season, could potentially prove the margin between survival and relegation. Moreover, Benitez’ players menaced from set pieces.
Sarri replaced the ineffective Morata and Pedro with Olivier Giroud and Willian and his side briefly raised the tempo.
Antonio Rudiger hit the bar with a ferocious 30-yard shot before Schar sent Marcos Alonso crashing in the area and, somewhat contentiously, Chelsea were awarded a penalty. Dubravka guessed right but Hazard’s kick was far too good and, finally, Sarri smiled.
It did not last. When DeAndre Yedlin swept past Giroud, inexplicably filling in at left-back, the substitute striker claimed the right-back had elbowed him in the face but the referee ignored him permitting Yedlin to cross superbly for Joselu – on for Rondon – to head an imperious equaliser.
Giroud scowled. Or at least until Willian’s free kick was only semi-cleared and Alonso’s volley was diverted into Dubravka’s net by Yedlin.
‘‘ With Chelsea rebutting a report that Roman Abramovich is hoping to sell the club, it was turning into something of a day of denials
Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin (facing down) is helpless as his own goal wins the day for Chelsea.