Sissoko lifts pressure off Pardew
"It was the game of the season," Alan Pardew beamed. On the day when the narrative was the return of Demba Ba, Moussa Sissoko rewrote the story and announced himself to the Premier League.
"I remember seeing him at Toulouse about 14-16 months ago," Pardew said of Sissoko, a £1.8 million signing in January. "There was only two players that I'd seen that I was desperate to get here. One was [Yohan] Cabaye and one was Sissoko."
For those who didn't know about him, Newcastle fans were happy to explain. "He's magic you know, you'll never get past Sissoko," they bellowed after both his goals and every time he terrorised the Chelsea defence with his lung-bursting runs from midfield. Creating chances and even engineering his own, the home fans in attendance will be pleased owner Mike Ashley chose to pay a small fee to secure the 22-year-old six months earlier than had been intended via a pre-contract agreement.
In a repeat of their midweek win against Aston Villa, Newcastle started brightly and were the better side in the first half. Spurning good chances, only a fantastic save by Petr Cech from Papiss Cisse kept the sides level. Five minutes before half-time the breakthrough came, an uncharacteristic header from Jonas Gutierrez giving them the lead.
As his former team-mates celebrated, Ba stood in the centre circle surrounded by 50,000 celebrating Geordies - he had never felt more alone. Substituted minutes later, his return to former club Newcastle had lasted less than 45 minutes and included two missed attempts and a broken nose. After the game, a visibly annoyed Benitez referenced the challenge from Coloccini that saw Ba leave the field as game-changing. "It is something we have to consider. I want to remind you that happened, because sometimes you don't remember these things," he said.
First out after half-time, Chelsea's players looked riled. Still not at the high standards they usually set, their interplay was neat but lacking penetration. When the equaliser did come, it was spontaneous and gave further credence to those demanding Frank Lampard receives a new contract. A pariah for much of the game, his fierce, long drive showed he still had the ability to produce when Chelsea needed it most. "I'm here to talk about the game," Benitez reiterated numerous times when pushed about his midfielder's future.
If Lampard is seen as the past, it was a component of the future that gave them the lead. Floating across the pitch behind Ba's replacement Fernando Torres, Juan Mata was undeniably Chelsea's best player. His performance culminating in a delightful, curled effort to give Chelsea the lead. At 2-1 their class was undeniable, but still they were struggling to dominate their opponents.
As Howard Webb's decisions began going against Newcastle tensions became heated. An expletive-filled quarrel erupted in the technical area between the two benches, but was quickly quashed by a placid Benitez.
Pardew was unhappy with the line of questioning after the game. "I want to win, Rafa wants to win. I don't know why you've asked me about that," he said. "You've got about 280 questions you could have asked me about the game, which was magnificent." He preferred to talk about a player's home debut he dubbed the best he'd seen at St James' Park during his tenure.
Yet it was more than just Sissoko. Newcastle's counter-attacking (a heavy feature of last season's fifth-place finish) was a constant worry for Chelsea, and was epitomised by their equaliser. Afforded a gulf of space to run into, Yoann Gouffran drew a fantastic save from Cech, with the rebound falling kindly to the onrushing Sissoko.
Already becoming a fans' favourite, he would have to wait just over 20 minutes to be the match winner, in which time the stadium had been whipped up into a frenzy. With just a minute to go he crashed home his second, the ground erupted, and the new boy began running towards an ecstatic Pardew.
As his team-mates piled in on top of him by the dugout, there was a polarising look of disappointment from Benitez. The Chelsea manager has 22 points from 13 Premier League games, two less than Roberto Di Matteo. Asked if he feared for his future, his diplomatic answers did little to suggest he was confident, despite insisting his side can finish in the top three.
Ever the optimist, Benitez reiterated there were positives to take, but they were hard to find in the haystack of negativity surrounding the result. Revolutions are unquestionably brewing at Chelsea and Newcastle, but in very different ways. The Magpies' Gallic invasion looks like ending fears of relegation, but for Benitez support is in shorter supply for a man that few wanted, as the 'Rafa Out' banners showed.