Chelsea thrash Brighton as Eden Hazard runs riot to end barren run
BRIGHTON, England -- Three thoughts on Chelsea's 4-0 win over Brighton, as Eden Hazard ended their recent barren spell with a brace. But the Blues had some good fortune to thank for the win.
1. Chelsea make Brighton pay
There are certainly better players in the world than Eden Hazard -- Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are pretty good, to name two -- but when the Belgian is on top form, there aren't many better to watch, as he displayed by masterminding a Chelsea win (their first of 2018) over Brighton.
Hazard was sensational as he scored twice, helped set up a wonderful team goal for Willian and ran the show all day long. Brighton looked like they had little clue of how to even start combatting Hazard, about which they shouldn't necessarily be embarrassed. They aren't the first, and certainly won't be the last.
The prematch minute's applause for Cyrille Regis, who died this week, had barely ended when Chelsea took the lead. Victor Moses put in a low cross from the right, which deflected into Hazard's path; he shifted to the right and hammered the ball into the roof of the net. If you ever wanted a brief illustration of Hazard's remarkable talent, the effortless way he created space for himself inside the area was it.
Three minutes later, it was 2-0, in even more brilliant fashion. Hazard, Michy Batshuayi and Willian worked the ball among one other in an absurdly tight spot on the edge of the area, then a pair of backheels put the ball into the path of the Brazilian, who thrashed a shot low into the net. The team that hadn't scored in three of their previous four games basically had the points wrapped up with 84 minutes remaining.
Brighton attempted to get back into the game and should have been awarded a penalty after 15 minutes. Goalkeeper Willy Caballero, playing in place of the injured Thibaut Courtois, charged off his line like a man trying to scare an animal off his front lawn and appeared to trip Ezequiel Schelotto. Referee Jonathan Moss, this time without the benefit of VAR, which he used to reinstate Kelechi Iheanacho's goal for Leicester on Tuesday, shook his head, and the local fans howled.
Another penalty shout came shortly afterwards when Schelotto went down under a challenge from Antonio Rudiger. But while the case for that was much weaker, both home fans and players were dismayed. Schelotto was booked for his protests, and most of the crowd probably would have been too, if such a thing were possible.
Going forward, Chelsea looked sensational. Hazard right in the middle of "The Zone" as he ran at a terrified Brighton back three, but in defence they were less secure. From set-pieces, in particular, they looked extremely shaky, on at least three occasions, giving Brighton forwards free headers, and Caballero had to bail out his defence with a particularly brilliant save from Tomer Hemed.
After the break, the game was more even. Maty Ryan made a superb save from a Willian free kick, and Schelotto manufactured a chance for himself, which he wasted by shooting straight at Caballero.
Yet Hazard sealed the win with 13 minutes remaining. He picked the ball up on the left and drove infield, the Brighton defence melting away as runs right and left distracted them from the true danger. That allowed Hazard time to pick his spot, and the spot he picked was the bottom corner.
It was 4-0 in the closing minutes. Substitute Charly Musonda skimmed a fantastic pass over the Brighton defence, and Victor Moses snuck in to slip the ball past Ryan. Hazard may not have had the final say, but he was easily the man of the match.
2. Hazard leaves Brighton clueless
In a week when Chelsea have reportedly been so desperate for a new attacking "point of reference" that they've asked about the availability of Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll, Eden Hazard showed that when he's at his peak, Antonio Conte could pick a traffic bollard up front, and his No. 10 would make it look like Didier Drogba.
Hazard was sensational against Brighton, simultaneously delicate and muscular as he roamed in from the left, like a lion carefully assessing which bison was weakest and best to pick off.
As well as his own brilliant attacking runs, which left Brighton's defenders looking petrified, Hazard has a knack of making the players around him look much better too. When he and Batshuayi had the ball in tight spots, the two Belgians fizzed passes and flicks off each other in thrilling fashion; when he had the ball in space, his colleagues looked like they were compelled to make the right runs, guided by some sort of Hazardian mind control, which he would, of course, complete by making the perfect pass.
His goals were simple but brilliant. It was as if Hazard could make the world around him slow for a second while he engineered a chance.
Hazard has promised to sign a new contract at Stamford Bridge, without yet signing his name in the relevant place. More important than any new purchases, tying him down must be their top priority.
3. Brighton back-three gamble fails
It's easy to see why a manager might want to shift formation in order to combat Chelsea. Matching their 3-4-3 is always tempting, in order to ensure Hazard et. al. can't exploit the space left in a four-man defence. It's also easy to see why Chris Hughton made significant changes to his team from last weekend's defeat at West Brom, when they were desperate.
But the wisdom of switching to a system that Brighton haven't used from the start this season, and possibly at all in Hughton's entire three-year tenure at the club, for the visit of the defending champions, was questionable at best.
Trying to combat Hazard when he's not at his flowing best is tricky enough, but to do so in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable shape is even more difficult. Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk have formed a fine central defensive partnership over the past 18 months, and it seemed a curious time to disrupt that.
Throw in that this was just Connor Goldson's second start of the campaign after missing the early months with a heart condition, and playing this defensive set-up looked like even more of a gamble. A gamble that clearly failed.
In the end, with Hazard in this form it might not have mattered too much. He has made fools of much better teams than Brighton. But Hughton's plan was to cause discomfort to Chelsea's players, and ultimately he only succeeded in doing that to his own.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.