Chelsea cruise as Willian, Giroud star ahead of Barca test
LONDON -- Three thoughts on Chelsea's 4-0 win vs. Hull in the FA Cup fifth round.
1. Too easy for Chelsea
Chelsea have had precious little fun in 2018, but the good vibes were well and truly back at Stamford Bridge against Hull City.
The visitors were admittedly obliging opponents and took just 106 seconds for Kevin Stewart to give the ball away deep in his own half and Willian drove at the Hull defence, jinking onto his left foot and curling into the top corner.
From that moment Chelsea were in command, circulating the ball with zip and confidence as their Championship opposition laboured with little belief. On 14 minutes Pedro Rodriguez dinked the ball over the Hull defence for an unmarked Olivier Giroud to volley over and moments later the Spanish forward poked just wide after racing onto a Cesc Fabregas through ball.
Thirteen minutes later, Pedro took another laser-guided Fabregas pass into his stride and slotted low beyond goalkeeper David Marshall. Chelsea were rampant and, five minutes later, the superb Willian put the game beyond doubt, firing in off the post after good work from Giroud.
Chelsea's new frontman has made a positive early impression and, with Stamford Bridge willing him to score, he granted their wish in trademark fashion shortly before half-time, meeting debutant Emerson Palmieri's low cross at the near post. It was a rout.
Mindful of Tuesday's clash against Barcelona, Conte had rested several stars and, with Eden Hazard, N'Golo Kante, Thibaut Courtois and Andreas Christensen all absent, Ethan Ampadu started in defence while Emerson's long-awaited debut enabled Marcos Alonso to be preserved for the bigger test to come.
The extent of Chelsea's dominance prompted Conte to introduce academy prospect Callum Hudson-Odoi for Pedro at half-time and not even Fabregas' silly foul on Harry Wilson in the box could spoil the night; Willy Caballero, a noted penalty specialist, saved David Meyler's spot kick.
Chants of "Barcelona, we're coming for you" rang around and, unlike in the recent defeat vs. Watford at Vicarage Road, the tone was not ironic.
It is tempting to think that Chelsea could have done with stiffer opposition to prepare them for Lionel Messi and Co. but, while step up on Tuesday will certainly be steep, confidence was the most pressing issue.
At the end of a week that began with his job in doubt, Conte will take two victories, seven goals scored and none conceded.
2. Giroud and Emerson settling in
It took just 60 minutes against West Brom for Chelsea supporters to warm to a man who served Arsenal with distinction for six years. The applause that greeted Giroud as he left the pitch on Monday --battered, bruised and bandaged -- held genuine appreciation and he built on the good will against Hull City.
Scoring helps, too; Giroud took one chance and might have had a hat trick against Hull, but if Conte judged his strikers purely on goals then Michy Batshuayi, in rampant form on loan at Borussia Dortmund, would still be at Stamford Bridge.
The manager wants a "point of reference" to set the table for the entire Chelsea attack and Giroud fits the bill. He is strong, comfortable with his back to goal, has an underrated passing touch and an impressive awareness of supporting runners.
And it is not a stretch to say that Giroud has staked a claim to start against Barcelona, particularly with Alvaro Morata desperately low on competitive minutes over the last month. The Spanish international replaced his fellow forward on 70 minutes and looked keen to catch Conte's eye, but his starting spot is no longer a foregone conclusion.
The performance of Emerson should also make Conte less fearful about the potential unavailability of Alonso, who is being given every available day to rest. In his absence, his new understudy impressed, providing attacking width and ambition on the left.
Fabregas looked for Emerson early and often and his contribution was encapsulated by the forward surge and low cross to set up Giroud's goal. Hull's toothless attack offered little indication of the 23-year-old's defensive prowess, though, and you suspect this will be a key factor in who Conte trusts against Barcelona.
3. Ampadu continues to show he belongs
Coaches are invariably reluctant to publicly praise young players and often even less willing to play them. It is particularly striking, therefore, that Conte has been so emphatic in his endorsement and steadfast in his trust of Ampadu.
Christensen is the breakout story of Chelsea's season, but the dreadlocked 17-year-old signed from Exeter City last summer is not far behind. This was Ampadu's fourth start of the campaign and his third in the middle of a back three, a position usually reserved for grizzled veterans.
He seized it with typical coolness, calmly shepherding Nouha Dicko into non-threatening areas whenever Hull managed to escape their own half and marshalling the back line with none of the reckless aggression that marked his first exposure to Chelsea's first team.
We have already reached the stage where no one at Chelsea is surprised by Ampadu, though his achievement in earning Conte's trust is all the more remarkable when you consider that he arrived at a club notorious for its glass ceiling as an outsider to the most talent-stacked academy in the country.
"It's not difficult for me to predict a brilliant future for Ampadu," Conte said on Friday. Regardless of whether or not the Italian manager is still at Stamford Bridge next season, this looks like one Chelsea prospect who will not be denied.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.