Three Points: Newcastle end Chelsea's unbeaten Prem run with a fine win
NEWCASTLE -- Chelsea's unbeaten run came to a thudding halt at St. James' Park as two Papiss Cisse goals gave the 10-man Magpies a dramatic 2-1 win. Here are three quick points from Saturday's early Premier League clash...
1. A nail-biting win ends Chelsea's unbeaten run
Few expected a Newcastle victory, yet there was something predictable about the pattern. In Newcastle's previous three home games, they'd been goalless at the break and eventually won 1-0. Before today, 33 percent of their goals had come from substitutes. Therefore, we shouldn't have been too surprised when this was 0-0 at half-time and a replacement broke the deadlock.
Yet this wasn't a victory without scares. Chelsea had good moments of pressure in the first half with Willian twice coming close and further chances for Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas.
But the drama, like the goals, all came in the second half. In fact, it started before play had even resumed: Newcastle were forced to replace their goalkeeper, Rob Elliot, with third choice Jak Alnwick -- Tim Krul was already unavailable. Alnwick trotted rather nervously toward the goal where Chelsea had been warming up before the game, with Thibaut Courtois, Petr Cech and Mark Schwarzer, three established internationals and perhaps the best goalkeeping trio the Premier League has ever seen, testing each other with ferocious close-range shots. How Newcastle must have wished they could borrow one of those for the day.
But Alnwick proved entirely capable. He repeatedly came for crosses and corners, scampering from his goal line to punch the ball clear and showing no sign of nerves throughout the biggest 45 minutes of his life. He was protected well, too, by some brilliant last-ditch defending. At one point, after Chelsea had gone 4-2-4 for the final 25 minutes, substitute Didier Drogba nodded down a high left-wing cross to Diego Costa, who blasted toward goal. Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini dived to block, and a combination formed an impenetrable barrier in front of the goal.
That goal lived a charmed life. 12 minutes from time, Hazard struck an intelligent, well-measured shot toward the bottom corner from a right-wing pull-back -- Alnwick was rooted to the spot, but the ball bounced off the post. The post didn't just save an equaliser, it also started a counterattack as Sissoko and Cisse combined, albeit slightly accidentally, for the second.
Taylor's red card for a wild lunge on substitute Andre Schurrle with nine minutes remaining changed the situation entirely, especially when Drogba nodded in from the subsequent free kick. The Ivorian remains the ultimate Plan B, an absolute master at reaching high balls.
Inevitably, Newcastle barely got out of their own half at 2-1 up but one man down. Alnwick became nervous again, not coming to intercept a simple chipped ball over the top, which invited more pressure, hoofing the ball downfield to nobody and conceding possession immediately. Newcastle were in a 4-5-0 formation while Chelsea had Hazard, Drogba, Costa, Schurrle and Fabregas attacking.
Ultimately, Newcastle held strong. Drogba and Terry had late half-chances in the six minutes of stoppage time -- you can imagine how that was received around St. James' Park -- but for a good, brave and clinical performance in attack, Newcastle deserved a bit of luck in defence.
2. Pardew gets his strike selection right
It's not generally considered acceptable to leave St. James' Park full of praise for Alan Pardew, but on Saturday his selection of strikers was one of the key features of Newcastle's surprise 2-1 victory. Most expected Pardew to stick with Cisse up front after his goal at Burnley in midweek, but Pardew took the brave decision to select Ayoze Perez instead. He's a different player -- smaller, more technical and, most crucially, quicker.
In some ways, it caused Newcastle problems -- long balls from keeper Elliot found Perez battling on his own against John Terry, Cahill and John Obi Mikel, a contest he was never likely to win. But Perez gave Newcastle other options, troubling both Terry and (in particular) Cahill with his ability to come short before darting in behind.
Perez generally played in the left-hand channel, attacking Cahill on the outside, although his first major contribution came against Terry. The Chelsea captain got too tight to Perez, was easily turned and Newcastle built an attack in the zone he had vacated. Daryl Janmaat's cross sailed harmlessly into Courtois' arms but it lifted the crowd for the first time.
That ability to come short was also useful when Perez received the ball between the lines and slipped a great pass to Jack Colback motoring forward from midfield. Colback forced Courtois into a quick save, springing forward typically quickly from his line -- although the offside flag had been raised.
Perez was always an outlet: whenever Newcastle had the ball, they chipped it in behind for Perez to chase. The best example came a minute before half-time, when Perez managed to give Cahill the slip without even touching the ball, the centre-back's sliding challenge taking neither man nor ball. Newcastle simply wouldn't have got up the pitch without Perez. Even Perez's defensive work was good: a very quick tackle on Mikel after Newcastle lost possession high up the pitch prompted a long-range blast from Colback.
Then, early in the second half, Pardew introduced Cisse, the penalty box presence who could capitalise on the fact Perez's pace had pushed Newcastle forward. Perez went to the right, with Remy Cabella departing, and it took Cisse just five minutes to strike. The goal originated from the left flank, with Cahill making a mess of his attempted clearance. Cisse was on hand later to make it 2-0, essentially converting into an empty net after good work from Moussa Sissoko on the break.
It's easy to say Cisse should have started, but he wouldn't have offered such an outlet when Chelsea were piling on the pressure in the opening stages. Perez played that role nicely; Cisse then provided an instant impact. It worked perfectly, and sometimes managers -- even Pardew -- deserve the credit.
3. Mikel is not auto-Matic
Chelsea's team selection this season has been amazingly consistent. In the age of widespread squad rotation, Jose Mourinho has been extremely reluctant to change a winning team, and his starting XIs are as predictable as they are formidable these days. A couple of times, Schurrle has provided a more attacking alternative to Willian on the right, and Diego Costa has been unavailable for a couple of games. Otherwise, there's rarely any team news to speak of.
On Saturday, however, Chelsea were without a key player. Nemanja Matic was suspended, having collected five yellow cards, and therefore Mikel came into the side. Mikel is still a highly experienced player -- a Premier League and Champions League winner -- but he remains frustratingly limited in comparison both to his early promise as a footballer and, more pertinently, to Matic.
Mikel's distribution simply isn't as adventurous or slick, and he often played square balls to slow Chelsea's attacks despite the fact that so much of the Blues' quality is about direct counterattacking. Matic fizzes the ball in to players on the run, whereas Mikel gently prods safe passes inviting players to protect the ball and turn back.
Without the ball, too, he lacks Matic's authority. An early foul on Cabella was his first contribution, and, although he made a great interception to stop a Paul Dummett pass reaching Sissoko, a subsequent foul underlined his awkwardness.
We now know Chelsea are not invincible -- we already knew this, to some extent -- and, although they remain strong favourites for the league title, they will have to cope with the absence of key players. In goal, in defence, in the attacking midfield section and up front, they are well covered, but Matic and Fabregas might be the combination they can't cope without.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.