BLUE HEAVEN: Chelsea new boy Michy Batshuayi celebrates his goal
THE BEGINNING of a new season habitually means a completely fresh start for Watford, such is the annual managerial chopping and changing at Vicarage Road. Walter Mazzarri has now been installed as the man to take the Hornets forward, but he will belatedly have to wait for his first win on home soil having failed to overcome an old nemesis in Antonio Conte.
Mazzarri and the Chelsea manager fell out during their time in Italy, both of whom were in charge of Napoli and Juventus respectively, following a tempestuous battle in pursuit of the Serie A title. Their friendship has since been reconciled, but Conte was in no giving mood at Vicarage Road.
Chelsea were spared the ignominy of a defeat when two late goals from Michy Batshuayi and Diego Costa extended their unbeaten start to the season. When Conte duly abandoned his tactics to bring on the trio of Victor Moses, Cesc Fabregas and Batshuayi – each made a discernible difference following their introduction as the away side markedly improved.
The Blues can be satisfied to have begun their season so luminously but it was the hosts who looked the smarter bet to score the opening goal. A lovely diagonal ball from Miguel Britos to Jose Holebas culminated in the full-back nipping in behind Branislav Ivanovic forcing Thibaut Courtois to come thundering off his line to block Holebas’ close range shot.
Shortly after, Eden Hazard instigated Chelsea’s first opportunity at goal when he effortlessly evaded past Craig Cathcart and played an incisive pass into the six-yard box, which was cleared away from danger just in time by Britos with Costa waiting in the wings for a simple tap-in.
Two big totems were missing from the Watford line-up, with Younes Kaboul and Roberto Pereyra’s arrivals from Sunderland and Juventus respectively unable to be completed in time for either to feature. Both, however, were soaked from the sprinkle during the pre-match welcome, which seemed to serve as a weather warning that rain was on the horizon.
And that proved to be the case when the Hertfordshire rain made an appearance with Conte opting to sport the autumn range from the Chelsea megastore having decided a winter jacket and cap was better suited to cope with the difficult conditions. In truth, there was only fleeting moments when both teams looked convincing going forward.
They often cancelled eachother out and with this encounter resembling the hallmarks of a goalless draw, space via the flanks seemed the ideal area to exploit. Nordin Amrabat dispossessed Cesar Azpilicueta in Watford’s half of the field and the winger surged forward and shrugged off the full-backs’ attempts to retrieve the ball before drilling in a searching cross where Odion Ighalo’s close-range strike agonisingly sailed over the bar.
The last time the home side recorded a victory over Chelsea came in 1999, not since the days The Vengaboys were top of the UK charts with their hit song ‘We’re going to Ibiza’ but it seemed like the Chelsea players were still in holiday mode due to their supine display.
As the hosts started to muster more chances, they also grew in confidence. So far they have adapted well to Mazzarri’s preferred 3-5-2 formation and on the back of their solid performance against Southampton last week they had the temerity to take the lead against Chelsea.
A long ball floated in from the right channel saw Etienne Capoue comfortably chest the ball and rifle his strike into the top left-hand corner past the despairing drive of Courtois.
As a sign of his discontent, Conte jettisoned the ineffective Pedro for Moses and brought on Batshuayi for Oscar, with his usual excellence eluding him, reverting to a 4-4-2 formation to provide more threat going forward.
But most telling of all, there was a massive cheer from the away enclosure when Fabregas was introduced in place of the anonymous Nemanja Matic. But Conte’s tactical rejig paid dividends within three minutes of his final substitution when Batshuayi opened his account for the club.
With no one in a yellow shirt showing any real desire to close him down, Hazard fired a venomous shot towards Gomes who hurriedly spilled the Belgian’s strike promoting a gleeful Batshuayi to score the easiest tap-in he will get all season.
The visionary from Fabregas to set up Costa for the winner may feasibly be a contender for assist of the season. Following the Spaniard’s defence splitting pass, Costa was clean on goal and the striker personified coolness to comfortably slot away his effort, and second of the season, in the death throes of normal time. A late chance at goal from Batshuayi thudded against the crossbar, but victory had already been secured.