There are title defences.
And then there are Chelsea title defences. As an exercise in exploring how quickly a steamrollering champion team can be reduced to a frazzled, meandering rabble, Chelsea’s opening 45 minutes of the Premier League season here against Burnley is likely to take some beating.
A red card for the captain, Gary Cahill, on 13 minutes was followed by goals from Sam Vokes, Stephen Ward and Vokes again as Burnley produced a performance as controlled and incisive as Chelsea were flaccid.
Reduced to 10 men and 3-0 down at the break against a team they had not lost to since 1971, Chelsea did rouse themselves in the second half, Álvaro Morata scoring his first goal for the club before Cesc Fàbregas was also sent off, shown a second yellow card for a lunging challenge.
David Luiz pulled back another to make it 3-2 at the end and draw a roar of defiance around Stamford Bridge. But really this was a disastrous start for the champions, and an opening day defeat that some will suggest came heavily trailed.
It is no secret there has been discontent around the place, not least friction between manager and club hierarchy. So profound was the ambient gloom during a summer when Chelsea replenished rather than expanded their squad that casual observers might have assumed Antonio Conte’s team would start here already trailing on minus five points, or with the kit-man squeezed into a spare pair of shorts at kick-off.
The Chelsea team sheet did have an air of shoulders being shrugged towards the directors’ boxes. Jérémie Boga made his debut in midfield, nine years after joining the club as an 11-year-old and moving from Marseille to New Malden. Antonio Rüdiger started in a three-man defence and Michy Batshuayi led the attack, albeit only in name during 59 largely feeble minutes on the pitch. On the bench Kenedy emerged from his doghouse to sit alongside an assortment of kids, a record signing No9 and the substitute goalkeeper.
For Burnley Jack Cork made his debut as Sean Dyche packed the centre of the pitch. And Burnley were hugely impressive here, starting in a rush and pressing hard and high up the pitch. Albeit the game had barely got out of second gear when Cahill received a straight red for a challenge on Steven Defour. Cahill overstretched as he missed the ball. His studs were visible. Craig Pawson produced the card instantly. Modern precedents suggest it was fair, although it was hardly a vicious foul.
Moments later Vokes had the ball in the net from an offside position after a bout of headed pingpong as Chelsea struggled to rejig. And on 24 minutes Burnley went ahead via another soft goal on the weekend the world forgot how to defend. Matthew Lowton advanced unimpeded down the right and floated in a cross that was missed by David Luiz and Vokes beat Thibaut Courtois with a faint contact that dribbled perfectly into the far corner.
The Burnley end rejoiced, Dyche punched the air and Chelsea continued to play like a team still sleepwalking through the dog days of summer, astonishingly short on passing rhythm or any kind of combinations going forward without Eden Hazard on the pitch.
In the shakeup after Cahill’s red, Conte had taken off Boga and brought on Andreas Christensen to keep his defence the same shape but there was a striking feebleness to Chelsea’s right side as Burnley went 2-0 up five minutes before half-time. Not that anything should take away from the quality of Ward’s goal after a short free-kick, the left-back weaving into the area then spanking a wonderful shot into the far corner.
Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. At least, this often seems to be the case when David Luiz is involved. Within three minutes it was 3-0: another simple cross from the right by Defour, another terrible piece of marking by the Brazilian and another headed finish by Vokes in hectares of space.
Chelsea came haring out early after the break and to their credit they rallied. Alonso had a fierce free-kick well saved by Tom Heaton. Morata added some guile, holding the ball up well and producing a neat finish after Willian’s cross from the right.
And by the end Stamford Bridge was in uproar for the right reasons as Chelsea pressed hard, Burnley hung on with great heart and the home crowd could at least cheer their bloodied champions from the pitch at the end of a wild season’s opener.
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