|match review copied from www.theguardian.com|
Eden Hazard goal edges Chelsea past West Ham to maintain league lead
Dominic Fifield at Upton Park
Published Wednesday 4 March 2015 21.57 GMT
The scene at the final whistle told its own story. Chelsea players, as relieved as they were elated, converged in small groups in front of those massed in the lower tier of the Sir Trevor Brooking stand with the clenched fists and bellowed celebrations betraying the significance of success. Claiming the Capital One Cup at Wembley, and with it the first major silverware of José Mourinho’s second coming, is one thing. Emerging victorious from a derby as brutal as this to retain authority in the title race arguably meant so much more. The manager was probably only half joking when he admitted he might lie in until midday to recover.
This was blisteringly frenetic, the visitors stretched horribly at times by a West Ham United side who had won only once in 10 matches and were apparently witnessing their own promising campaign dying a death. At times the leaders heaved to contain the Hammers, with Sam Allardyce’s team direct and relentless, pouring forward with Diafra Sakho spurning at least four clear opportunities and Thibaut Courtois, restored after Sunday, maintaining his finest clean sheet yet as a Chelsea player.
That Chelsea’s only goal was perilously close to being ruled out for offside, with West Ham also left to bemoan the non-award of a penalty for handball against Gary Cahill, merely reinforced the sense that this was a decisive moment in the title race. Chelsea remain five points clear with a game in hand against the club who currently prop up the division. Theirs remains a position of strength.
It was certainly the kind of nail-biting win with which titles are claimed. West Ham had posed a different kind of threat to Tottenham Hotspur at the national stadium, with this team laced with pace and eager running when spurred on in a hostile atmosphere, and Enner Valencia and Sakho a constant menace.
The absence of the suspended Nemanja Matic was keenly felt throughout by the visitors, even if Mourinho subsequently revealed that his Serbian midfield shield had managed to twist an ankle while celebrating Sunday’s success out on the pitch and would not have been available to feature here even without his ban. “He had shinpads on but he didn’t have tape on,” said the manager of Matic, who had joined his team-mates on the pitch at Wembley post-match. He could deliver that anecdote through a smile given the injury is minor, but also because his available lineup had triumphed regardless.
Psychologically, it would have been damaging had the slender lead secured by Eden Hazard’s goal midway through the opening period been surrendered amid West Ham’s avalanche of second-half chances. Courtois had risen to the occasion superbly, clawing away from the grounded Sakho’s prod, then diving sharply to his left to deflect the striker’s effort behind. His saves in the first half had been just as eye-catching, the Senegalese forward nodding Carl Jenkinson’s right-wing cross firmly down for Courtois to push away, while Cheikhou Kouyaté’s close-range attempt was blocked with his shins.
When the Belgian did spill Valencia’s attempt, Cahill dived in to suffocate Sakho’s follow-up. The visitors were stretched, the threat charging at them from all angles with John Terry booked early and less at ease against slippery opponents whose energy levels never dipped. Allardyce bemoaned rare profligacy. “The way they play, nobody is better than them,” said Mourinho. “We faced some periods where we had to defend with everything.”
Their own threat was mustered on the counterattack, with their approach as ruthless as West Ham had been relentless. Kevin Nolan was still wondering how he had failed to make contact with Jenkinson’s centre when Chelsea broke at pace, Cesc Fàbregas exchanging passes with Hazard on the edge of the West Ham penalty area before slipping the overlapping Ramires free.
The home side were still adjusting to the hamstrung Winston Reid’s early departure, with the Brazilian’s centre whipped across the six-yard box and met emphatically by Hazard, who planted his header beyond Adrián. The playmaker appeared to have been marginally the wrong side of Aaron Cresswell and Jenkinson, the deepest of West Ham’s ramshackle back-line, but the assistant’s flag was not raised. Mourinho may consider good fortune had been with his team on this occasion.
They should have prospered further on the counter, Jenkinson conjuring one wondrous last-ditch tackle to thwart Diego Costa as he prepared to bury a second and Ramires, twice found by the brilliant Hazard, striking post and the goalkeeper’s outstretched foot. Cresswell somehow cleared Willian’s attempt from the line in stoppage time, but those missed opportunities merely added to the drama, both managers reduced to gibbering wrecks in their technical areas by the frantic majesty of the contest.
“It would have been easy to have lost two points here,” added Mourinho. “We were on edge to the end because we couldn’t kill the game off, but in the end it was a massive win for us.” The title remains theirs to lose. Come May, they might just reflect on that win down the District Line as the moment the championship had started to feel properly within their grasp.