Battling Chelsea show mettle to overcome bruising Watford test

For long, long, periods on Wednesday, it felt like being one of those nights for Chelsea as they faced Watford at Vicarage Road.

A title-chasing powerhouse heads a few miles up the road to face one of the division’s strugglers on a bitter winter’s night and – lo and behold – they get beat; we’ve all seen it before, up and down the football pyramid.

Indeed, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were thumped 4-1 in the same fixture on a Monday evening in February 2018.

From minute one Thomas Tuchel’s side seemed destined to suffer a similar fate. Watford began the game like men possessed, keeping their visitors penned in with a relentless press. It was a tactic that almost yielded two goals inside five minutes.

First, Joao Pedro saw a low shot destined for the bottom corner blocked by Trevoh Chalobah, before Edouard Mendy was forced into a flying save to tip the ball around the post after Cesar Azpilicueta inadvertently deflected a cross towards his own goal.

Shortly afterwards the game was suspended and the players were taken off the field after a supporter suffered a cardiac arrest in the stand. Thankfully they were stabilised before being taken to hospital, but not even the 35-minute pause was enough to dampen the Hornet’s approach.

Even when Mason Mount gave Chelsea the lead against the run of play 29 minutes in, this did not feel like a match that the Blues would go on to win.

To that point it had been an incredibly disjointed performance from the visitors – a result of heavy rotation and a raft of injuries in the midfield that meant Saul Niguez and Ruben Loftus-Cheek started in the centre. Neither was on their game, surrendering the ball and being eaten alive in the midfield battle with Moussa Sissoko.

At the back, Watford’s press saw Chalobah and Antonio Rudiger shed their usual swagger and regularly squander possession or nervously play backwards, while others were clearly not up to the physical battle that the likes of Sissoko, William Troost-Ekong and Tom Cleverley were relishing.

Almost inevitably the equaliser arrived shortly before half-time, and it was a goal that laid bare Chelsea’s deficiencies on the night. Sissoko latched onto Loftus-Cheek as he attempted to pirouette in the middle of the park, stealing the ball and driving into opposition territory. He fed Emmanuel Dennis, who was afforded the space to squeeze the ball through Rudiger’s legs and into the corner.

In recent years gone by, Chelsea would not have found a winner – and perhaps they would even have slipped to a defeat. But – just as thousands of supporters across the globe reached for their phones to slag off the manager’s team selection and tactics on Twitter – this iteration of the Blues demonstrated they are made of sterner stuff.

With just over 15 minutes remaining, Mount – the only Chelsea player who matched Watford’s intensity and bite throughout – did superbly to carry the ball to the byline and produce a pinpoint cut-back to substitute Hakim Ziyech, who whipped his finish into the roof of the net.

It was a winning goal that knocked the stuffing out of Watford, who finally relinquished and could do no more to get something from the match. It was a winning goal that was the difference between Chelsea remaining top of the Premier League and slipping to third as Man City and Liverpool both won on the night.

This was far from vintage Chelsea. Indeed, it was probably up there with their worst displays of the season, but we all know how the cliché goes about top teams that are capable of grinding out results.

At the end of every title-winning campaign there are always certain matches that are looked back upon as ‘defining’. This could well be one of them for Tuchel’s men come May.

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