London (AFP) – Chelsea cemented their grip on fourth place in the Premier League as Willian’s sublime strike sealed a 2-1 win over struggling Newcastle on Saturday.
Maurizio Sarri’s side took the lead through Pedro’s early goal, but Ciaran Clark snatched a shock equaliser before half-time.
With Chelsea fans beginning to lose patience at their team’s latest spluttering home display, Willian lifted the mood in the nick of time with his superb second-half curler.
Chelsea have won five of their last seven league matches and sit six points clear of fifth-placed Arsenal, who lost at West Ham earlier on Saturday.
But, while Sarri will be relieved to see Chelsea remain in control of the race to qualify for the Champions League, this far from convincing performance raised fresh questions about the former Napoli manager’s tactics.
Labouring to beat third-bottom Newcastle showed how far Chelsea have to go to bridge the gap in class to leaders Liverpool and champions Manchester City.
Newcastle find themselves in the relegation zone as a result of wins for Southampton and Burnley and another winter of discontent is brewing for the Magpies.
They have won only once in their last nine league games and fans again called for controversial owner Mike Ashley to sell up.
Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat against Tottenham in the League Cup semi-final first leg was the latest display of attacking impotence from misfiring Chelsea, who had failed to score in their last two home league games.
But it took only nine minutes for the Blues to go in front as Newcastle’s five-man defence was carved open with ease.
A fine long pass from Chelsea defender David Luiz caught Clark flat-footed.
Pedro timed his run behind Clark perfectly and held off the centre-back’s weak attempt to recover as he lofted a delicate chip over Newcastle keeper Martin Dubravka for his seventh goal of the season.
Chelsea dominated possession in the first half-hour, but they switched off at the back as Newcastle almost snatched an equaliser.
– Masterful finish –
Salomon Rondon flicked a header towards Ayoze Perez and he accelerated away from Antonio Rudiger, only to shoot woefully wide with just Kepa Arrizabalaga to beat.
It was a warning that Sarri’s men failed to heed and in the 40th minute Newcastle were level.
Matt Ritchie curled over an out-swinging corner and Clark muscled past Luiz to power a superb header past Kepa from 12 yards.
Willian should have restored Chelsea’s lead moments later, but the winger prodded nervously wide after being put through on goal.
Once again, Sarri stubbornly stuck to his experiment with Eden Hazard as Chelsea’s central striker despite the Belgian star’s dislike of the tactic.
Hazard has now scored just four times in his last 17 games, suggesting he is much more effective in his natural role on the flanks.
Newcastle’s massed defence allowed them to use two players to harass Hazard whenever he took possession, rendering him neutralised for long periods.
With frustration mounting, a misplaced pass by Jorginho triggered angry moans from Chelsea fans, who booed the team off at half-time.
Pedro should have silenced the critics in the stands soon after the interval when he raced clear for a shot that Dubravka pushed away.
The atmosphere was on the verge of turning even more toxic until Willian came to the rescue in the 57th minute.
Teed up by Hazard at last making an incisive burst, Willian did the rest himself, cutting back inside two Newcastle defenders on the left side of the area before curling a masterful finish into the far corner.
It was only Willian’s fifth goal of a disappointing season and the Brazilian’s first in the league since October.
Willian should have killed off Newcastle from another long Luiz pass, but this time his chip was blocked by Dubravka.
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