It was not pretty and, when Jorginho hopped, skipped and fluffed an 87th-minute penalty, it looked like it would not come at all. But Chelsea were able to squeeze out a narrow 1-0 victory over West Ham thanks to Christian Pulisic’s 90th-minute winner in a match that will not last long in the memory.
The goal itself was cleverly constructed and taken. On as a second-half substitute, Pulisic timed and adjusted a run into the box to get on the end of Marcos Alonso’s cut-back, after Mason Mount had carried the ball forward in desperation. The American stroked a finish into the far corner from his left foot for his fourth goal of the Premier League campaign. The equaling of last season’s tally that little bit less important than the end of a run two successive home deafest, and a much-needed clean sheet after shipping four goals in both.
Thomas Tuchel was relieved rather than buoyed. This was not a display to hang your hat on, and it is hard to think of a player beyond the usual suspects of Mount and Thiago Silva who emerged with any top-up of credit. But the three points re-establishes distance between them and Arsenal – now five points, with a game in hand.
West Ham were dutiful and certainly the most assured in what they set out to do. David Moyes has now not won any of his 17 visits to the away dugout at Stamford Bridge, and he certainly didn’t see this particular fixture as an opportunity to rectify that. Understandable given West Ham have something bigger to play for capital bragging rights, with Thursday’s meeting with Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final of the Europa League carrying far greater cache and reward than the league. Indeed the first song West Ham fans sang just as the players walked onto the turf was of their trip to Germany some 12 days away.
Historic European silverware would bring with it the added golden nugget of a Champions League spot now pretty much out of reach via league position. As such, as many as six changes were made from the team that drew with Burnley last Sunday – the most Moyes has tweaked with an XI in eight years – the most notable of which were Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio starting on the bench .
None of this was a surprise, of course. Even given the on-field stagnation of Chelsea in recent weeks, capped off by 4-2 defeat against Arsenal that made it three successive home defeats and 11 goals conceded, this was to be one of the more straightforward and tame encounters in this rivalry.
Nevertheless, Tuchel stuck with a group who, barring absences through injury, have been his tried and tested. Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Mount, N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek started, as they have done for various high-profile games in the last fortnight. While this engagement might have paled in significance, if Stamford Bridge is to be made a fortress, Tuchel certainly believes these are the ones to set the foundations in place for next season.
But this was much of the same from those in blue: slow build-up from the back, a lack of dynamism in the final third, devoid of spark or creativity. The home fans urged then groaned throughout a drab first half as they demanded a degree more urgency. On the rare occasions West Ham found themselves out of shape, Chelsea counters often fizzled out through a lack of ideas.
Even with only 29.8 per cent of the ball in the opening 45 minutes, the visitors were the ones to indulge in the slicker football. Build-up on the left after a raked ball to flank resulted in Pablo Fornals finding space 30 yards from goal. A lifted through ball was met by Yarmolenko on an out-to-in run from the right. The Ukranian’s volley on his stronger left foot was dragged wide of the far post.
Despite having Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech on the bench, Tuchel decided not to pull the chord for substitutions at half time, instead allowing the starters to step up a gear themselves, which the did for the benefit of the spectacle. The period after the break was unrecognizable from the store it followed.
Werner had a volley blocked by Craig Dawson after Mount’s byline cross was headed back into danger by Loftus-Cheek. Andriy Yarmolenko found space on the right to dance into the Chelsea box before teeing up Tomas Soucek who wouldn’t have had his shot snuffed out had he used the laces instead of a tame side-foot. Fabianksi was then called into action to save a deflected effort from Kante, then a purer strike from Trevor Chalobah. All in the first 15 minutes of the second half.
With a more open game to manage, Moyes brought on Declan Rice just past the hour, replacing Mark Noble to give West Ham more composure and better thrust from back to front in an area of the pitch that was starting to get away from them. Chances began racking up on both sides.
Yarmolenko again finding joy on the right, this time deciding against squaring and almost forcing the ball through Mendy twice. Werner then should have put Chelsea ahead when latching onto Mount’s blocked effort, but he took himself too wide in an attempt to create an angle and firing into the side netting. Another ball across by Mount, this time on the ground, was scuffed well wide of the far post by Alonso, admittedly on Spaniard’s weaker right foot. Werner was then given a clearer sight on goal as a loose ball bounced kindly for him just outside the six-yard box, but the required athleticism to produce an effort on goal meant compromising or power, allowing Fabianski to not just save but clutch the ball. with both hands.
With wave-upon-wave one way, this was more Chelsea;s toileting win, and so Tuchel introduced the cavalry of Pulisic, Ziyech and Lukaku with 16 minutes to go. And while that did not reap dividends in open play, the presence of many more in blue in and around the penalty area was always going to give West Ham’s backline more hassle.
Thiago Silva’s flicked header beyond Dawson was weighted enough to have Lukaku’s interests. The Belgian peeled past only to be tugged back for a penalty. A denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity saw a yellow upgraded to a red by Michael Oliver after reviewing the VAR screen, but the worst embarrassment was saved for Jorginho.
Fabianski did not hold his position, but seemed to anticipate the Italian would go to his right, and was already lying in wait for the ball to be gently stroked into his chest. It was another miss for club and country in 2021/22, but it was not to prove costly.
Just three minutes later, as the crowd seemed resigned to a goalless stalemate, a break down the left and a smart ball from Alonso towards the edge of the penalty area was met by Pulisic, one of the many runners from deep. His left-footed effort by him was composed, the celebration euphoric. This was not the most important, toughest or most necessary victory of a season that has promised much and delivers little. But in its own way, it was a bit of all three. As for West Ham, the deflation of defeat in such a fashion won’t sting for long.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.