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Mar 17, 2013

Blues cruise as sense of fun returns

About halfway through the second half of Chelsea's easy win over West Ham, Eden Hazard flicked the ball around three players and nutmegged Joey O'Brien. It was executed with all the effortlessness and casualness of a kick-about, and that reflected the match.

One of the most remarkable things about what was actually a thoroughly impressive performance was that it all seemed so routine - a sense of the routine, after all, has been missing at Chelsea this season.

Consider the kind of things that have consumed them over the past few months. If it's not off-pitch controversy, like the ongoing farrago over Rafa Benitez's appointment or individual player contracts, it's on-pitch complications like inconsistent results or Fernando Torres's latest goal drought.

• Lythell: Hazard caps perfect week for Chelsea
• Thorne: Hammers sunk by old boy Lampard

A different Spaniard missed against West Ham but, after Juan Mata had seen his effort fail, he turned to the fans behind him and grinned widely. That sense of enjoyment has also been absent from Stamford Bridge of late, but was evident against the Hammers.

Other than a bit of edge between the two opposing groups of fans and West Ham supporters' abuse for John Terry and - predictably - Frank Lampard, there was a hugely positive atmosphere.

After the game, Benitez was asked about his comments at Middlesbrough, and whether this better atmosphere was what he had meant and wanted. "If the team is playing well, the fans will enjoy it and that is the main target for us, to try to stick together," was his guarded response.

Chelsea were certainly cohesive against West Ham, Juan Mata and Hazard most of all as they consistently linked up in exquisite fashion. There was a certain inevitably about the glorious interchange between the two that brought the second goal.

Sam Allarydce reflected on that, saying: "It was a tough afternoon with the talent of Mata and Hazard, particularly. They were both outstanding today. As much as I'd like to say we should have defended better, sometimes you just have to admire the talent."

That talent brought the sumptuous second goal that made the game safe. In truth it had ceased to be a contest long before then. West Ham had begun well and taken the game to Chelsea, but Frank Lampard's 18th-minute strike seemed to have an effect beyond that of just putting his side ahead. It instantly sapped all the vigour from Allardyce's team while energising Benitez's.

Andy Caroll did have the ball in Petr Cech's net four minutes later, but the disallowed goal was the only incident to interrupt almost ceaseless Chelsea attacking, and Demba Ba could have had a hat-trick by half-time but squandered three one-on-ones.

Had it been another kind of day, more might have been made of the slight worry of Chelsea's other centre-forward showing some of the symptoms of the malaise that has plagued Torres' time at the club.

It wasn't, however, a day for worrying - at least, not for Chelsea. Instead, there was a sense of celebration because of Lampard's goal: a 200th for the Blues, and against his first club.

"I'm really happy for Frank Lampard," Benitez said. "It is a great achievement for any player, but especially a midfielder."

Missiles appeared to be thrown at the Lampard as he celebrated in front of the away fans, but his manager claimed he didn't notice, saying: "He was thinking about scoring another goal."

Allardyce was thinking about how his team had allowed the goal to happen, saying: "He's the ghost in the box that no-one seems to see. Massive credit to him for 200 goals in his career. I'm just said it's come against us.

"What interests me is how Frank sneaked into the box to score. That's all I see. Outside of that, I don't see much, so I can't comment on that [the apparent throwing of missiles]."

Benitez, meanwhile, wouldn't really comment on why Terry had been asked to move to the other end of the pitch in order to warm up. One rather pointed set of press-ups in front of the away fans, and the body part thereby directed at them, seemed to especially enrage them.

In general, though, Chelsea's players were embarrassing the opposition, something shown by some of the things they were willing to try. On 37 minutes, Mata curled a delicious long-range effort just wide of the post before David Luiz attempted a Tony Yeboah-style volley. In short, you could sense how much they were enjoying themselves.

"I think the team was doing well from the beginning, and today we could keep the momentum, attacking football, creating chances," Benitez explained. "It's a pity because we could not score more goals, but I am really pleased with the performance and the clean sheet."

He will be even more pleased by the Premier League table. With Spurs beginning to stumble, Chelsea have reclaimed third spot. And if they can maintain this kind of mood, they should stay there for the season.

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