LONDON — Three points from Stamford Bridge on Chelsea’s 1-1 derby draw with West Ham in the Premier League.
1. Chelsea pegged back
This was another two points dropped for Chelsea — which will be particularly frustrating for home supporters because their side should have been out of sight by half-time. Their attacking play was bright and only a lack of ruthlessness hampered them: Alvaro Morata had two goals disallowed for offside — both correct decisions, but he might have timed his runs better in both instances.
The opener was scrappy. Cesar Azpilicueta, a surprisingly consistent threat in the penalty box at set pieces today, prodded home from Morata’s knockdown in the aftermath of a corner kick to provide Chelsea with a 36th-minute lead. It’s the seventh time the two Spaniards have combined for a goal in the Premier League this season, the joint-most in the division (the other two contenders both involving Liverpool’s front three).
Despite the nature of that goal, Chelsea’s football here was often very exciting. Eden Hazard played a notably central role, receiving forward passes from midfield and feeding teammates with flicks and back-heels. Indeed, the move that led to the corner for Chelsea’s opener was the best football of the game: Cesc Fabregas played the ball into Hazard, who immediately fed Morata. His back-to-goal play returned the ball to Hazard, who played Willian in on goal, and forced a fine save from Joe Hart. It was an outstanding move, cutting right through West Ham.
Morata should have timed his runs better, Willian poked past the far post after a Hazard back-heel and Victor Moses cut inside before bending a left-footed shot just wide of the far post. And it seemed Chelsea would pay for their profligacy — so it proved, with Javier Hernandez’s 73rd-minute equaliser proving crucial.
2. Hernandez saves West Ham
Javier Hernandez’s move to West Ham hasn’t worked out particularly well — he’s found himself on the bench for the majority of the campaign, with David Moyes recently preferring converted winger Marko Arnautovic upfront. But Hernandez remains amongst the most decisive penalty box finishers in England, and it took him just three minutes to equalise here, latching onto an Arnautovic cut-back and finishing calmly in front of the away supporters.
Until then, the Hammers’ main approach was knocking long diagonal balls towards centre-forward Arnautovic, who made some excellent runs into the channels in behind Chelsea’s wide centre-backs, but was largely isolated from teammates. One ball, from Arthur Masuaku in the opening stages, was excellent and briefly seemed to be dispatched towards goal, first-time, by Arnautovic in the style of Robin van Persie. The Austrian certainly has that ability, but instead took a touch and the chance was gone. He also tested Thibaut Courtois with a curler from the edge of the box just after half-time, but what he desperately needed was some support.
There was, in truth, only one obvious option — West Ham’s bench looked incredibly weak. So, with 20 minutes remaining Moyes sent on Hernandez in place of the underwhelming Edmilson Fernandes. Edmilson offers far more than Hernandez in the middle of the pitch, but the Mexican provides obvious goal threat — and he only needed one chance, sweeping the ball home right-footed with typical composure to level the proceedings.
Moyes speaking to the media afterwards praised the striker. “He’s made a career out of scoring goals, he’s a penalty box striker and his movement is great. It’s one of those things you can’t teach…if you want the ball to fall to someone in the box, Chicharito’s that man.”
It was Hernandez’s eighth Premier League goal of the season, which sounds more impressive considering his lack of opportunities. This works out as one every 202 minutes — effectively a rate of almost one goal ever two games — but poachers like Hernandez increasingly seem a dying breed in top-level European football.
Aside from Hernandez, two West Ham players impressed. Young centre-back Declan Rice performed well on the ground and in the air, against the club who released him when he was 15. He’s been one of few positives from their campaign. But their man of the match was goalkeeper Joe Hart, who was wrongfooted for Azpilicueta’s opener but subsequently made five excellent saves. The pick was an excellent one-handed tip over the bar from Marcos Alonso’s long-range effort.”
3. Chelsea play well, honour Wilkins
After Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur here last weekend, it’s widely acknowledged that their chances of finishing in the top four are now over, and with serious doubts over Antonio Conte’s future, things could have gone two ways.
Either Chelsea could have done what Chelsea have a habit of doing when games have little consequence: shutting down and switching off, conserving their energy for next week’s FA Cup semifinal against Southampton. Or, they could have turned it on, playing without pressure and a renewed sense of attacking purpose. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the latter here.
Chelsea supporters are entitled to ask precisely where this Chelsea has been in recent weeks, when the attacking play has been one-paced and the intensity badly lacking. This is the same group of players who triumphed so spectacularly in the Premier League last season, and while Conte can legitimately complain about the poor quality of new arrivals last summer, it’s still incredible that Chelsea are now seemingly only fighting with Arsenal to finish fifth.
But perhaps this contest was most notable for what happened just beforehand, as the afternoon began with a series of tributes to Ray Wilkins, whose death was announced on Wednesday at the age of 61. Wilkins was a hugely respected figure across the country and every Premier League game was preceded with a minute’s applause, but Stamford Bridge was his true home.
Appointed captain of Chelsea at just 18, Wilkins played over 200 games in midfield for the Blues and subsequently enjoyed three separate spells as assistant manager. Banners at either end of Stamford Bridge today paid tribute to his influence at the club, and prompted a sporadic standing ovation even before referee Kevin Friend signalled the beginning of the “official” minute’s applause. West Ham supporters joined home fans in observing the ovation.
It was a genuinely touching moment, and a fine tribute to a man amongst the most respected and popular figures in recent English football history.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.