By Kevin Affleck
‘I’m Still Standing’ is currently the soundtrack to a home game but the Hornets could have borrowed another song from the playlist of their famous former owner and blasted out ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’ after this one.
It kind of summed up how this one went. The Hornets rolled like thunder for most of the first half but for the umpteenth time at the home of one of the big six, they couldn’t translate some of their rich attacking play into something tangible. It was so similar to how things panned out at the Emirates, at Old Trafford and even here last season. There was a crushing inevitably that Chelsea would move through the gears and be more clinical when their time came, and so it proved. They scored twice in a three-minute spell straight after half-time and that was pretty much that. The third from Gonzalo Higuaín, on 75 minutes, was just incidental and a touch cruel.
There was again plenty to admire about this performance, not least the slickness of some of the attacking play, but Javi Gracia will slowly be getting tired of saying how competitive his side were at one of these imposing venues and against such vaunted opposition. You don’t get any points for artistic merit and you certainly are not going to finish as the best of the rest until you start picking up the odd point or two at one of the big boys. It’s now 15 consecutive away defeats for the Golden Boys against sides in the top six. That statistic will be top of the to-do list in the summer.
This defeat will really annoy Gracia as his side did so many things well. They were really at it in the first half, from one to XI. They forced the first corner and the second one, the first with a bit of elaborate play from Craig Cathcart, and there were two outrageous flicks in the corner from Gerard Deulofeu, the sort you’d usually see with a team 3-0 up and ten minutes to go. That’s how in charge the Hornets were and the confidence they were playing with, particular in the opening 20 minutes.
They were flooding down the inside left channel and playing some lovely, cohesive football, with Troy Deeney acting as the most reliable of conduits and Roberto Pereyra and Deulofeu buzzing round the captain. Deulofeu flashed one just wide of the far post, José Holebas smashed one over and the one the Hornets did get on target – a brilliantly timed and directed header from Deeney – Kepa Arrizabalaga produced an astonishing flying save, out-stretching his top hand like Étienne Capoue extends one of his telescopic legs to keep it out. Deeney had his hands on his head. He couldn’t believe the Spaniard had kept that one out.
Undeterred, the bold Hornets kept coming and kept taking the game to the hosts. There was not a trace of anyone keeping anything in reserve for the cup final. You could tell that by the way Will Hughes was going at it hammer and tongs with Marcos Alonso. Deeney was certainly not easing himself back in after three games out through suspension, giving David Luiz and Andreas Christensen a right good going-over in the air.
Perhaps weary from their midweek exertions in Germany, Chelsea started to come out of their shell and show flashes of what they are capable of towards the end of the first half. Ben Foster made a meal of an attempted chip from Jorginho; Adrian Mariappa had to make two blocks, the first one was outstanding, to deny Higuaín; Foster had to dive well at the feet of Eden Hazard and Pedro flashed one past the far post.
But you felt Chelsea weren’t quite firing on all cylinders and that was confirmed when Hazard stuck a shot in the second tier of the Shed End. There were plenty of groans from their home supporters at the break, a sign Chelsea weren’t quite at it and an indication of how well the Hornets had played.
The Blues were out much earlier than the Hornets at the start of the second half, perhaps a sign Maurizio Sarri was not impressed with what he had seen in the first half. Whatever he said at the break worked a treat as within three minutes they were ahead, Ruben Loftus-Cheek nodding in a cross from Hazard. A further three minutes later and it was two, Luiz getting the run on Mariappa to head powerfully past Foster. It was going to be a long way back from here.
It looked like it might get messy for a bit and a question of how many Chelsea might get. Foster saved brilliantly from Pedro and again from Higuaín, while Nathaniel Chalobah timed a tackle to perfection on Higuaín just as the Argentine was about to pull the trigger.
The Hornets never threw the towel in though, and they had chances of their own when Deulofeu squirmed one just past the far post and then Holebas, marauding forward and inside from left-back, hit the top of the crossbar. It kind of summed up what sort of day it was in front of goal when Isaac Success headed a ball that rebounded off the post into Andre Gray and into the net, and it was flagged for offside. Had it not hit Gray, as it really shouldn’t have done from that distance, Success would have been celebrating a goal with his first touch.
But it was that sort of day, a day when nothing really went right at both ends of the pitch, a day when you felt we were close to getting our first win here since 1986 and yet still so far away. At least there were no injuries, no sendings off, and there is still the chance to turn this good season into a great one with a victory on our next trip to London.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Chalobah (Cleverley 67), Doucouré, Pereyra; Deulofeu (Success 82), Deeney (C) (Gray 82).
Subs not used: Gomes (GK), Masina, Kabasele and Janmaat.