Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win vs. West Ham

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LONDON — Chelsea beat West Ham United 2-1 at Stamford Bridge on Monday as Antonio Conte‘s first game in the Premier League ended in dramatic fashion.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new identity ]

Chelsea’s new manager saw Eden Hazard put the Blues ahead early in the second half but the Hammers battled back with James Collins scoring a superb instinctive finish. However, Diego Costa then scored in the 89th minute to send Conte and Stamford Bridge wild.

[ MORE: Bilic talks down Costa foul ]

Here’s what we learned from a feisty London derby.


COSTA, HAZARD HOLD KEY FOR CONTE 

No matter how bad they played last season, Hazard and Costa still ooze quality on the ball and have that extra bit of class which will win the Blues countless games. The extra bit of quality they provide in the final third will be the difference between Conte’s side finishing in the top six and challenging for the title and it proved to be the difference on Monday.

Hazard scored the PK which put Chelsea ahead and in the first half he cut inside from the left and curled an effort just wide of the far post. He looked sharp, lean and the Belgian playmaker was Chelsea’s go-to man out on the left wing with Conte often gesticulating for his players to spray the ball wide as early as possible.

As for Costa, devils still seem to haunt his soul. In the first half he charged towards referee Anthony Taylor after Oscar had gone down in the box but no penalty kick was awarded. Costa was booked under the new rules implemented this season by the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) about player behavior towards officials.

Costa then showed some of his quality as he sent a dipping shot from distance just over in the first half and turned well in the box to force Adrian into a fine low save at his near post early in the second half. He then had another rush of blood to the head as he caught West Ham’s goalkeeper Adrian with a late, high tackle and was lucky to still be on the pitch.

Luckily for Chelsea he did stay on the pitch because in the 89th minute he turned on the edge of the box and slotted home the game-winner.

Both Hazard and Costa seem sharper than last season and more determined. If they can stay fit, focused and on top form, they hold the x-factor for Conte at Chelsea. Under their Italian manager they will keep it tight and won’t blow teams away this season.


KANTE FINDING HIS FEET

N'Golo Kante was booked three minutes into his Chelsea debut and the French midfielder didn’t look comfortable in a first half which saw his team dictate the play. Chelsea will have to find the right spot for him to get the most out of his undoubted talents but after a slightly subdued first half performance he improved drastically in the second half but was lucky to stay on the pitch after a mistimed tackle on Dimitri Payet didn’t result in a second yellow card.

At Leicester Kante had many opportunities to win the ball back but at Chelsea that won’t always be the case. Conte’s side had 62 percent of possession on Monday but Kante isn’t great with the ball. Sure, he can knock a sideways pass and clip a long ball forward but his game is all about stepping in high and intercepting it, then distributing it. He doesn’t take risks on the ball and that allows opponents to settle in when Chelsea’s model under Conte is all about getting forward as quickly as they can when they have the ball.

In the space of about 20 seconds in the 55th minute he first won the ball back from Andy Carroll as he slid in twice and somehow retrieved it, then made another interception. That’s the Kante we all know and rave about. The Chelsea fans loved it.

The man who led Europe’s top five leagues in interceptions and tackles last season is still finding his feet at his new club but as the game wore on Kante got better as the lone holding player in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Perhaps he would be best in a flat four across midfield or a 4-2-3-1. He is so good at winning the ball back that it seems like a waste not to have somebody alongside him to take the ball from home. Kante is not a “water-carrier” as his new manager Conte was often described during his playing days at Juventus. He is a supreme reader of the game who makes everyone around him better. It will take time for Kante to become the heartbeat of this Chelsea team but given his quality it only seems like a matter of time before that is the case.


 

HAMMERS NEED HELP

Slaven Bilic and Conte were breathless on the sidelines. Kicking each and every ball with their players, it was exhausting to watch them up close.

Bilic was especially incensed with decisions from the referee which allowed Costa and Kante to remain on the pitch and had several quiet words with fourth official Michael Oliver during the game. The Hammers boss seemed frustrated and his claim that he still needs reinforcements this summer seems legit. After their seventh place finish in the PL last season, this summer represented a chance for West Ham to kick on as a club with their move to the new London Stadium and a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds secured.

Of the new players they brought in, Arthur Masuaku looked useful at left back, Gokhan Tore didn’t do much after coming on as a sub and Havard Nordtveit was taken off in the second half. With Sofiane Feghouli and Jonathan Calleri to play their part, plus Payet to start their next game after coming back from international duty late, Bilic has more bodies than last season. But does he have the quality to push for a top six finish?

Michail Antonio is a fine winger but he was preferred to Sam Byram and used as a makeshift right back and gave away the penalty kick as Hazard scored Chelsea’s first. With Diafra Sakho on his way out, they only possess Andy Carroll and Enner Valencia up front and West Ham could certainly use reinforcements in attack.

It was a typical gritty, determined display from Bilic’s boys buy they just came up short. That will happen a lot this season if they don’t do plenty of business in the final 16 days of the transfer window.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.

Mata seems to confirm Champions League is Man United’s priority

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With the Premier League title all but wrapped up, English top flight teams are beginning to put their true focus onto competitions they still have a realistic shot of winning.

Manchester United sits in second place in the Premier League table, but they are a full 18 points back of rivals Manchester City, as so with a Champions League match against Sevilla on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Mata all but confirmed that the Red Devils are putting their main efforts into Europe’s largest competition.

[ MORE: Messi pegs back Chelsea despite winning tactics ]

“If we had less of a gap with respect to the Premier League leaders and we had a chance to fight for it, it wouldn’t be so tough to be eliminated from the Champions League, but now our aim is to progress from every round,” Mata said to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. “It would be a big blow to be eliminated in the last 16.”

Last season, a similar story played out. Manchester United was out of reach of a top four finish in the league, so manager Jose Mourinho publicly admitted they were putting their main focus on the Europa League due to the automatic berth the competition’s winner received into next year’s Champions League. The gamble paid off, as Manchester United won the competition and earned their spot in the Champions League this season.

Sevilla has not progressed past the Round of 16 since 1958. Manchester United, meanwhile, has not made it past the Champions League quarterfinals since their runners-up finish in 2011, when they lost to Barcelona in the finals at Wembley Stadium.

Wenger confirms Ospina will start pair while Ozil, Ramsey miss out

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Arsene Wenger confirmed in his pre-match press conference that goalkeeper Petr Cech will get an extended rest with a pair of Cup games on the horizon for Arsenal.

In his place, David Ospina will start both Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 match against Ostersund and Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. Ospina is no stranger to this type of rotation, with the Colombian owning just 30 starts over the last three seasons in national and international Cup competitions compared to just seven Premier League appearances.

In addition, Wenger also confirmed that Mesut Ozil will miss out for Thursday’s match due to illness, but is expected back for Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Arsenal has a 3-0 lead over Swedish club Ostersund after the first leg, with the second leg to be played at the Emirates.

Wenger said Aaron Ramsey is back in training, and while he will not be risked in the Europa League match in his return from a groin injury that saw him miss the North London derby loss, he could be in contention to play against Manchester City. [Ramsey] is not in the squad tomorrow, he had a good training session. We will see how his evolution goes between now and Sunday. I don’t rule him out.”

Ramsey scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Everton in early February, but has played just 181 minutes since picking up a hamstring injury in mid-December.

Finally, Wenger said that Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will both receive starting spots against Ostersund, as will some unnamed youth products. Welbeck has been out of Premier League action since mid-January, stuck behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he received four minutes off the bench in the North London derby and will get another opportunity in the Europa League to prove his worth.

Conte admits job security speculation will always exist at Chelsea

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Antonio Conte admits that he will always face speculation about his tenure as manager while he is employed at Chelsea, but dismissed it as “no problem for me.”

There is a general acceptance that Conte will part ways with Chelsea at the end of the season given the tough times the club has seen this campaign. The Blues are hanging on to a Champions League place by a thread, and struggled through a January that included just two wins across all competitions in six matches.

“I’ve said it very clearly: I’ve got a contract until 2019 and I intend to respect this, but you know anything can happen in football,” Conte told Italian publication Mediaset. “It takes two to be happy and continue a marriage. Our work is unique because we’ve always got our suitcase in our hands.”

Conte did issue somewhat of a warning to Chelsea, however, that if he were to be fired, it could come back to haunt the club, as he would have no shortage of offers. “My intention is to respect my contract, but if something were to happen, it would open up different scenarios.” Big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid could have job openings this summer if their lofty goals aren’t met, and those places would be attractive destinations for Conte, who won the Premier League title with Chelsea just last year.

“It’s a bit the history of Chelsea and inevitable when, in the past, in 14 years, 10 coaches have been changed,” he said. “Clearly when there is this habit, let’s say, the press play on it and as soon as there is a result or two which don’t go your way, they try to put the pressure on.

“But it’s no problem for me. I hope that this pressure doesn’t harm the players, not me, because I go looking for pressure.”