Chelsea cruise to 5-1 win vs. Newcastle but John Terry injury casts a shadow
LONDON -- Three thoughts on Chelsea's commanding 5-1 win over Newcastle at Stamford Bridge.
1. Chelsea are now Costa's team, not Hazard's
It's remarkable to think that less than two months ago, a visibly angry Diego Costa stalked off the Stamford Bridge pitch to a hail of boos when substituted in the 76th minute of a 3-1 win over Sunderland. Jose Mourinho had just left Chelsea for the second time and Costa was labelled one of the "three rats" who had forced out the greatest manager in the club's history.
Costa has scored eight goals in 11 matches in all competitions since that day and his renewed hero status among the Chelsea faithful is unchallenged. Not even a broken nose sustained during an accidental collision with academy prospect Fikayo Tomori on Thursday could prevent the Spain international -- the latest Blues star to wear a protective mask -- putting a woeful Newcastle to the sword in the opening 15 minutes.
"A team of Zorros!" was how Guus Hiddink jokingly commented on Chelsea's remarkable recent record of facial injuries. "Zorro" is the Spanish word for "fox," so it was fitting that Costa took no time to showcase his penalty area instincts despite his unfamiliar headgear.
Barely five minutes had elapsed when Costa darted in behind the statuesque Fabriccio Coloccini to steer Willian's pinpoint through ball into the bottom corner. Twelve minutes later he returned the favour, sliding a perfectly timed pass through to the Brazilian for Chelsea's third after Pedro had superbly capitalised on a shocking Rolando Aarons' pass to double their lead.
This time last year, Costa's season was in the process of fizzling out. He scored 18 of his 21 goals prior to Chelsea's 1-1 draw in Paris, netting just three times over the final four months of the campaign. Yet in 2016, he appears to be gaining momentum at just the right time, providing a focal point for an increasingly potent Chelsea attack, even as Eden Hazard continues to slowly play his way back into shape.
Stamford Bridge reverberated with chants of "Diego!" when Costa was replaced by Bertrand Traore, but the scoring continued. Pedro latched onto a searching Cesc Fabregas pass to add a fourth before Traore notched his first Premier League goal, tapping in a Cesar Azpilicueta cross.
Paris Saint-Germain will find this Costa-inspired Chelsea a far more dangerous proposition than the team shackled by Mourinho's pragmatism last year.
2. Newcastle are failing to spend their way out of trouble
Mike Ashley knows this really isn't the season to be relegated. Mindful of the bumper £5.14 billion bumper TV deal set to kick in from next season, the Newcastle owner bankrolled the largest net spend in the division in the January transfer window in order to stay up, shelling out £28.5 million to bring Jonjo Shelvey, Andros Townsend and Henri Saivet to St James' Park.
On Saturday's evidence it was nowhere near enough. Newcastle's basic defending remains atrocious, and while Chelsea were impressive in settling this match so early, they weren't made to work anywhere near hard enough. Coloccini twice stood and watched Willian and Costa combine to tear his team apart, while Aarons presented Pedro with a gift-wrapped opportunity to score his first Chelsea goal since December.
"Chelsea could not have picked a more attacking side," Steve McClaren told Sky Sports prior to kickoff. "The first 20 minutes are crucial." This prophetic message was lost on his players, as a Chelsea side that have struggled for wins under Hiddink were allowed to cruise to the easiest victory of their season. Not even a typical Andros Townsend run and shot in the dying minutes for a consolation goal could dull the Newcastle humiliation.
Newcastle have now taken just seven points from eight Premier League matches since Christmas Day and remain mired in the relegation zone despite possessing far superior talent to the teams around them. It was telling that Stamford Bridge chants of "You're worse than Sunderland" were met with stony silence rather than a defiant response from the glum travelling support.
3. Terry injury undercuts ideal PSG preparations
Less than 24 hours before he takes his squad to Paris, Hiddink could not have hoped for a less stressful or exacting 90 minutes. Chelsea were home and dry well before halftime, and while the Paris Saint-Germain defence is unlikely to be anywhere near as generous on Tuesday, a resounding win -- and goals for Costa, Pedro and Bertrand Traore -- will only boost confidence as the side prepares to redeem a rotten season.
Hiddink said on Friday that nothing about this Chelsea job has kept him up at night but he could be in for some fretful sleep over the next two days as he frets over the fitness of John Terry, taken off in the 38th minute after an aerial tussle with Aleksandar Mitrovic. While clearly hobbling, Terry did not appear to be in significant pain, and Hiddink will hope his precautionary substitution makes a difference.
Kurt Zouma's season-ending knee injury sustained against Manchester United already dealt a huge blow to Chelsea's chances of fulfilling any of their remaining objectives this season; the Frenchman had established himself as first-choice centre-back under both Mourinho and Hiddink.
Gary Cahill has a formidable and long-standing chemistry with Terry but looking beyond, it gives no cause for confidence. Branislav Ivanovic has not been a regular centre-back for a long time while Hiddink admitted on Friday that Matt Miazga and academy prospect Jake Clarke-Salter -- drafted into the first-team squad in the wake of Zouma's injury -- are regarded as long-term development projects rather than short-term solutions.
The relentless chants of "Sign him up" and "We want you to stay" emphasised that Chelsea supporters place more faith in Terry's long-term value than the club's key decision-makers, but as Hiddink knows too well, his captain's short-term worth is irreplaceable.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.