An abject and directionless first half gave Chelsea too much of a mountain to climb against high-flying Leicester in Monday night’s Premier League encounter. The match finished 2-1 to the East Midlands team, who are now back in the position that Chelsea occupied for so much of last season.
In a tense yet open game Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy showed why they are the league’s two deadliest weapons with a goal each against a Blues team who can see the fourth place finish they’re hoping for drift further and further away. By contrast, Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes showed what a powerful force a high level of confidence is.
The Chelsea team that started at the King Power Stadium lined up as they did in midweek against Porto, with Courtois in goal behind a defensive line of Ivanovic, Zouma, Terry and Azpilicueta; Ramires and Matic started in midfield just behind Willian, Oscar and Hazard; with Costa up front. The home team started with Schmeichel in goal behind Simpson, Morgan, Huth and Fuchs; Mahrez, Drinkwater, Kante and Albrighton started behind the front two of Vardy and Ulloa.
With Leicester in such a rich vein of form, Chelsea would have known that the only route to three points would have been to match the energy levels of their opponents. That high level was not applied at any point in the first half, however. Mahrez began brightest as he danced his way through the Chelsea midfield and tested Courtois with an early shot. The Algerian midfielder continued to make life difficult for the Blues and Courtois was again called upon to block one of his efforts 20 minutes in.
Both teams suffered casualties in the first half with Danny Drinkwater going off due to a thigh injury before Eden Hazard was swapped with Pedro – the Belgian seemingly unable to continue after getting up from a relatively innocuous challenge.
Chelsea would have been well aware of the danger of Leicester’s counter attack, yet they continued to knock the ball around with no purpose in the home team’s half, leaving themselves well open to the pace of Vardy & co. With Ramires providing a little more stability next to Matic though, Chelsea coped and the game looked set to drop in to an equilibrium. That was until the thirty-third minute, when the Premier League’s record breaking striker Vardy darted in behind Terry to knock in a simple yet effective Mahrez cross. The forward’s run was not tracked by Zouma and Terry, for reasons only known to him, chose not to head the ball away when it looked as though he could have.
Chelsea still hadn’t got into gear by the time the whistle blew for the break. With Diego Costa looking clumsy and average against centre-backs Morgan and former-blue Huth, Chelsea’s attack stalled whenever it got near the box.
Jose Mourinho’s half time team talk seemed to fall on deaf ears, and three minutes after the break they were 2-0 down. A looped cross found Mahrez on the back post, whose feet then turned Azpilicueta inside and out before he curled a fantastic finish past Courtois. It was a goal that Chelsea fans could only dream of seeing one of their players score this season, made possible only due to the immense belief that Leicester’s players currently have.
The second goal did spark some life into Chelsea, and after Fabregas and Remy were brought on for Oscar and Terry the Blues looked like they could finally find a way to goal. Diego Costa should have pulled one back after he went through one-on-one with Schmeichel, but the Spanish striker could only kick it at the keeper’s outstretched legs. The resulting corner flashed across the goal and Ivanovic couldn’t seem to knock it into an empty net.
Chelsea were getting frustrated, and as they pushed further forward the game opened up more. Leicester then had a penalty shout turned down when the ball struck Costa’s arm in the away team’s box, but replays showed it would have been a harsh penalty to give.
Chelsea’s forays forward were rewarded though when they got a goal back on 77 minutes. The ball was worked out to the left flank and Pedro whipped in a fantastic cross that Remy headed in from a couple of yards out. Remy’s goal and his energy will have Chelsea fans wondering how different their season would have been if he was on the pitch more often, as he is clearly one of the few players who is a natural finisher.
After the goal Chelsea never really got in behind Leicester again to find the equaliser, and the Foxes didn’t struggle too much in holding on to their lead – their hard work being enough to see them over the line. It was a period of play for Chelsea though that showcased the energy levels they should have started the game with, rather than waiting until they were all but beaten.
With Mourinho stating after the game that a top-four finish is no longer on the cards, Chelsea’s season can only be salvaged with a decent run in the Champions League or FA Cup. Having drawn PSG in the last 16 again though, it’s going to take a monumental shift in momentum between now and February to have anything to cheer about come May.