Mo­rata dou­ble steers Sarri’s Chelsea into sec­ond

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer -

Chelsea are not dis­miss­ing op­po­nents with quite the same panache as Manch­ester City, or even draw­ing as much fo­cus in the ti­tle race as a resur­gent Liver­pool. Yet, al­most on the quiet, Mau­r­izio Sarri equalled a Premier League record here by ex­tend­ing his un­beaten start in the divi­sion to 11 matches, and it is the Ital­ian’s team who are sand­wiched be­tween the more fan­cied con­tenders at present.

This was an im­pres­sive vic­tory not least be­cause Chelsea were chal­lenged, and even pegged back, early in the sec­ond half but, rather than pan­ick­ing, they re­sponded. It helped they could fling on Eden Haz­ard from the bench, of course, with the Bel­gian’s in­tro­duc­tion af­ter a back in­jury in­stantly send­ing a rip­ple of ap­pre­hen­sion through Crys­tal Palace’s ranks and his mere pres­ence serv­ing to raise Chelsea’s col­lec­tive stan­dards. None of his sparkle had been dimmed by a three-game ab­sence.

Class

That timely in­jec­tion of class spurred the hosts to re­cov­ery. Their lead had al­ready been re-es­tab­lished when, with 20 min­utes re­main­ing, Mar­cos Alonso burst down the left and crossed for Pe­dro, who was sprint­ing to the penalty spot, to fin­ish em­phat­i­cally on the charge. The Spaniard’s en­ergy was a fea­ture of this team’s dis­play, the pace at which the goal had been con­structed a re­minder that Chelsea, too, can cut all com­ers apart. Palace, in­dus­tri­ous but blunt, were sliced apart by the move and, in truth, never re­cov­ered.

All of which will have buoyed Sarri. Chelsea’s ini­tial leads ei­ther side of the vis­i­tors’ equaliser had been es­tab­lished by a man en­joy­ing some­thing of a re­cent up­turn in for­tunes. Ál­varo Mo­rata had limped through to the end of last term as a player ap­par­ently far from com­fort­able at Chelsea, his early flurry of form hav­ing pe­tered out into in­ad­e­quacy. The doubts had re­mained un­der Sarri’s stew­ard­ship but there have been goals of late to pa­per over the de­fi­cien­cies.

His fourth in six games was pil­fered just af­ter the half-hour mark, Ce­sar Azpilicueta find­ing Pe­dro whose cross was ini­tially nod­ded out weakly by James Tomkins. The cen­tre-half was still pick­ing him­self up as Pe­dro in­tel­li­gently fired the ball across the six-yard box where Mo­rata, squeez­ing space from Aaron Wan-Bis­saka, col­lected and con­verted on the turn be­yond Wayne Hen­nessey.

It was a goal made in Spain, and it roused the hosts from a be­calmed open­ing, a pe­riod marked more by pinged Palace passes. Back then there had been prom­ise in the vis­i­tors’ at­tacks, with Max Meyer, on only a sec­ond Premier League start, and Wil­fried Zaha threat­en­ing to wrig­gle through.

Naturla fin­isher

But, as be­fits a team de­void of a nat­u­ral fin­isher, the ap­proach play had tended to give way to noth­ing un­til, early in the sec­ond pe­riod, they plucked par­ity from nowhere. The source of their equaliser felt un­likely, rasped as it was be­yond Kepa Ar­riz­a­bal­aga by An­dros Townsend, a player who had failed to reg­is­ter in 20 top-flight games. There was com­po­sure in the buildup, from Tomkins’ pass slid for­ward to the even­tual scorer, and Townsend’s neat ex­change of passes with James McArthur in a con­gested mid­field.

Mau­r­izio Sarri equalled a Premier League record by ex­tend­ing his un­beaten start in the divi­sion to 11 matches

The hosts had been dis­com­fited by the pace in Palace ranks, from Pa­trick van Aan­holt to Wan-Bis­saka via the front­line. Yet they still had their trump card to play. Haz­ard emerged from the bench mid­way through the sec­ond pe­riod, just af­ter Hen­nessey had con­jured a fine save to deny David Luiz, to un­nerve op­po­nents sud­denly heav­ing to sti­fle a Chelsea re­vival. It was the Bel­gian’s free-kick which duly skipped unchecked through Palace’s at­tempts to block and reached Mo­rata, alone at the far post. His fin­ish was dis­patched low into the far cor­ner with Roy Hodg­son curs­ing on the side­lines.

Then came Pe­dro’s third and a com­fort­able fi­nale, with Palace’s pur­suit of fur­ther re­ward rather des­per­ate, Zaha run­ning in to massed blue shirts and Azpilicueta block­ing Townsend’s late at­tempt. As it tran­spired, Mo­rata should have ended with the match ball af­ter break­ing up­field on to Haz­ard’s pass from a Palace cor­ner, only for Hen­nessey to deny his at­tempt at a close-range lob. It mat­tered lit­tle. Chelsea, qui­etly but im­pres­sively, march on.

– Guardian

Ál­varo Mo­rata: has scored four in his last four Premier League games

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