“Special” – from a man who knows a thing or two – was the verdict for Eden Hazard’s display at the Stadium of Light last night as the Belgian scored twice and set up another in a stunning 4-3 win over Sunderland to keep his team in the title hunt.
Hazard was absolutely unplayable in the North-East, finally following through on his threats of combining those three divine attributes: commitment, quality and consistency.
Having seen his side fall behind to a scrappy Jozy Altidore goal, the ex-Lille man rose to the occasion, first putting the equaliser on a plate for Frank Lampard, then launching angry missiles either side of the interval to set the Blues on course for a tenth successive victory on Wearside over the division’s basement-dwellers, who had enjoyed a recent upsurge under new head coach, Gustavo Poyet; himself a former patroller of Chelsea’s left flank.
The game was littered with errors. It was frantic, frenetic and absolutely fabulous. There were penalty appeals, alleged offences in the build-up to several goals and seven bookings, one which was handed to Hazard after scoring, another that went to Willian while leaving the field and one a mere twinkle in referee Phil Dowd’s eye but enough for Poyet to haul off Jack Colback to stop the spoiling of this incredible spectacle with one-third still to play and a measly four goals on the board.
But none of that was ever going to carry the headlines away from the goals and from the game’s greatest contributor.
With Oscar injured, talk was of how Juan Mata would at last have the opportunity to take the reins and get back to those Player-of-the-Year-hogging offerings of the past two seasons. However, it was Hazard who reacted to Altidore’s 14th minute opener by plotting a path to the by-line three minutes later, shifting his weight and producing a precision cross, not that it needed to be for Lampard to nod home, considering the 10-metres-squared the Sunderland defenders permitted the 35-year-old to pick his spot past a helpless Vito Mannone in what must have seemed the world’s widest goal.
And it was he who, in response to having his first of the night – a swerving, unerring strike into the bottom corner after trademark trickery had taken him to the edge of the box – cancelled out by more graceless defending of a dead-ball situation that left John O’Shea free to ram home the hosts’ second, scurried in from the left, collected a Lampard back-heel and let fly again with equivalent aplomb for what might, on another night, have been the winner.
However, in a game played out at a ferocious pace, there was time for Phil Bardsley, given a torrid time by Hazard all night, to score at both ends, first rewarding a typically rampaging Ramires run and well-worked one-two with substitute Demba Ba with a fine, sliding finish – cue clattering of seats – before punishing more slapstick efforts at clearing a less-than-menacing set-piece to drag the fans back and give his team a third helping of hope.
With the contest so open and the urgency in seeking goals remaining steadfast throughout, surviving even the late entrance of Jon Mikel Obi into the fray, it was impossible not to wonder whether this will simply never be a team in the Special One’s image, taking the frailties and eccentricities of its components, or if this is, in fact, a side gradually emerging into one that represents the new Jose; the cultured, becalmed, post-Serie A, más allá de Madrid Mourinho of 2013.
When it works, the Chelsea system is mesmeric: Ramires acts as the dogged retriever, Lampard the selfless, instant distributor. Mata/Oscar roams, coming deep to thread the play, and works the ball wide for Hazard to confront his man, using Fernando Torres’ movement as a decoy to allow him time and space within which he is, at his best, deadly. And that is just Plan A.
Both sets of players delivered the highest levels of energy to make for an engrossing encounter and post-match back-slapping all round. It was often not pretty and the deficiencies on display from those in blue will be met with far graver consequences should they appear against a title-chasing outfit but, for entertainment value alone, this must rank among Chelsea’s great away days under our only two-time tactician.
The man with the impeccably high standards certainly thought so:
“By far our best performance away from home” was how the Portuguese architect summed up the evening’s shift and few could argue. Plus, with a building block of immense artistic elegance and outright effectiveness such as Hazard, a slight touch-up around the base and a few further flourishes along the front elevation and this modern structure could yet have designs on changing the Premier League landscape.