Chelsea still in title hunt with dramatic comeback win vs. Watford
LONDON -- Three points from Chelsea's 4-2 comeback win versus Watford on Saturday at Stamford Bridge that saw the defending champions avoid three consecutive Premier League defeats.
1. Chelsea remain in the title hunt
Midway through the action-packed second half at Stamford Bridge, it genuinely seemed that Chelsea's title defence was over. With a loss, they would have ended Saturday 12 points behind leaders Manchester City. Instead, a stunning late turnaround means Chelsea are in fourth place and remain involved after a victory they barely deserved.
For long periods here Chelsea were extremely poor -- open in defence, sloppy in possession and, more than anything, seemingly exhausted. Pedro Rodriguez's stunning curled opener gave Chelsea the lead but only partly masked a poor start -- it was the same when David Luiz curled in against Roma midweek. In fact, Chelsea appeared rather too reliant upon shooting from long range throughout this game, whereas Watford frequently worked the ball into dangerous positions.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has frequently appeared frustrated with the limitations of his squad since triumphing last season, complaining about the lack of depth and the poor fitness levels of his first-teamers -- they're currently at around "70 percent," Conte said before this game. But, somewhat surprisingly, the substitutes came to Chelsea's rescue.
First, Michy Batshuayi was summoned in place of Alvaro Morata midway through the second half, with Chelsea's No. 9 struggling in terms of fitness. Conte evidently doesn't trust Batshuayi -- his runs aren't great and his holdup play is nonexistent. But the Belgian unquestionably knows where the goal is. With Watford up 2-1 in the 71st minute, he equalized with a superb near-post header from Pedro's cross -- a classic centre-forward's goal. Batshuayi would later score in stoppage time to confirm the victory.
But Chelsea's crucial goal was the third, which came after Chelsea had threatened down the right thanks to substitutes Davide Zappacosta and Willian. The latter's teasing cross was accidentally flicked on by Christian Kabasele and converted at the far post by Cesar Azpilicueta. Azpilicueta wasn't a substitute, but having switched from right-wing-back to left-wing-back after playing right-sided centre-back for most of the season, the Spaniard is crucial for a manager frustrated about his lack of options.
2. Wasteful Watford
Last weekend Watford defeated Arsenal 2-1 despite playing poorly. This weekend they lost 4-2 after playing superbly, and manager Marco Silva will be hugely frustrated that wastefulness in front of goal denied the Hornets a victory here.
Having witnessed Roma's impressive pressing in advanced positions throughout a midweek 3-3 draw here, Silva asked his players to do something similar. It was 3-4-3 vs. 3-4-3, with Richarlison and Roberto Pereyra pushing forward versus Chelsea's defenders as the wing-backs tracked their opposite numbers. Chelsea struggled badly against this pressing. When Thibaut Courtois finally attempted a long goal kick rather than attempting to play out, the home fans cheered -- they were tired of their side being caught in possession.
Watford were impressive in possession, too. Pereyra darted around to facilitate one-twos with Richarlison and Troy Deeney, while the midfield duo of Tom Cleverley and Abdoulaye Doucoure again functioned very well. Cleverley was the hero last weekend with his late winner, but here Doucoure was on the score sheet, blasting home his fourth goal of the campaign in the aftermath of Jose Holebas' long throw. From the highlights, it will appear that Watford got lucky with a direct route to goal from a set piece, but their possession play was very impressive throughout.
Watford came out fired up for the second half, and went ahead when Richarlison squared to Pereyra, who finished coolly.
But Watford's second half was defined by misses from point-blank range. Richarlison produced one of the misses of the season when he sliced Kiko Femenia's cross wide under little pressure, albeit just before Watford went ahead anyway. But it could have been 3-1 when Richarlison headed wide at the far post, and he had another opportunity when coming inside to meet a cross midway through the second half, but he couldn't quite turn substitute Andre Carillo's low ball home. Richarlison has been excellent this season, but today the Brazilian's profligacy cost Watford dearly.
3. Pedro a bright spark
Pedro is rarely the main man. Having made a name for himself at Barcelona for his hard work, clever runs and selfless play in a team overloaded with superstars, he sometimes seems to be an afterthought, eternally the third player you consider in a front trio. Here, however, he was Chelsea's liveliest player, and he opened the scoring with a quite outrageous goal.
Chelsea were controversially awarded a corner on the right flank -- the ball was quite clearly miscontrolled by Chelsea's Eden Hazard over the byline, rather than coming off a Watford boot. With Watford still protesting, Chelsea took it quickly and rolled the ball back to Pedro, 25 yards out, very much right of centre. Pedro arced his body in a Beckham-esque manner before driving a quite incredible dipping, curling shot that perfectly clipped the top of Watford keeper Heurelho Gomes' far post before bouncing into the net. It was a truly magnificent goal, summarised by the fact that it took a couple of seconds for the entire Stamford Bridge crowd to realise it had gone in, such was the dipping trajectory.
On top of the goal, Pedro was excellent. His speed and movement was used primarily in central positions to link play, rather than when scampering in behind, his traditional run. Chelsea's best opportunity of the first half came when Cesc Fabregas briefly played the Pedro role, storming forward in the inside-right channel to get on the end of a passing move featuring Hazard and Morata. Clean through on goal, Fabregas chipped tamely into the arms of Gomes.
As Conte has been keen to point out, the demands of European football mean Chelsea are struggling to play with the intensity of last season. But Pedro, with and without the ball, provided a fresh, lively option in the final third, and his opener will live long in the memory.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.