London (AFP) – Champions Chelsea had Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas sent off as the defence of their Premier League title began with a stunning 3-2 home defeat by Burnley on Saturday.
Disjointed and embarrassed in the first half, Chelsea threatened to mount the most unlikely of comebacks in a stirring second-half display, but just failed to overcome their numerical disadvantage.
Sam Vokes was Burnley’s match-winner with a brace and Alvaro Morata’s lively Chelsea debut — a goal and an assist for David Luiz — came in vain.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte’s bleak afternoon began in the 14th minute when new club captain Cahill was shown his first red card in five seasons.
Attempting to dribble forward, Cahill saw the ball run away from him and tried to block Steven Defour’s clearance.
Instead, his studs caught the Belgium midfielder on the shin and while it was accidental, it was also reckless and referee Craig Pawson immediately brandished the red card.
The composure of the Chelsea players disappeared for the remainder of a half that will not be quickly forgotten.
Fabregas was booked for sarcastically applauding Pawson’s decision to give a free-kick against him and much worse was to follow.
That was due in part to the belief that Burnley now possess, having retained their Premier League status last season.
The visitors were also assisted by disarray in the Chelsea defence in spite of the introduction of Andreas Christensen to replace unfortunate debutant Jeremie Boga.
Without Cahill to guide him through his defensive duties, Luiz lapsed into carelessness.
He ought to have been closer to Burnley striker Vokes when Matthew Lowton curled in a 24th minute cross, but the Welshman was given space to clip a volley off Luiz’s heels and past Thibaut Courtois.
Six minutes before half-time, left-back Stephen Ward made it 2-0 in stunning fashion.
Ignoring the obvious opportunity to launch a cross into the Chelsea area, the visitors played a free-kick short.
– Echoes of Mourinho –
After a one-two with the excellent Jack Cork, Ward strode onto the return pass and let fly with a rasping left-foot shot that flew into the top-right corner.
It took 40 minutes before Luiz launched Chelsea’s first shot in anger high over the bar. While that was speculative, Burnley were being clinical.
They chose to play another free-kick short in the 43rd minute.
This time it was Defour who curled the ball into the area. Vokes drifted away from the static Luiz and powered home a header that gave Courtois no chance.
Stamford Bridge was stunned. The Chelsea supporters vented their anger towards referee Pawson, while the delirious Burnley fans sang: “We are top of the league!”
It is only one game, yet the parallels with Chelsea’s last defence of a Premier League title two seasons ago under Jose Mourinho were uncanny.
Not least because Willian stood up as the only player with any heart for the first hour.
After N’Golo Kante had seen a shot deflected onto the roof of the net in first-half stoppage time and Marcos Alonso had been denied by Tom Heaton, Willian began to haul Chelsea back into the contest.
The Brazilian curled an exquisite 69th-minute cross into space behind the Burnley defence and substitute Morata stooped to guide a diving header past Heaton, just nine minutes after coming on.
Had Morata not touched a goal-bound Christensen shot over the line five minutes later, it would have been 3-2 sooner. But the offside flag was raised.
All seemed lost when Fabregas earned a second yellow card for lunging in on Cork nine minutes from time.
That was until Luiz sprinted onto Morata’s pass and volleyed in to bring the nine men to within a goal of Burnley.
A frantic finish saw Burnley’s Robbie Brady strike the post with a free-kick, while Chelsea’s pressure just failed to bring an equaliser.