Nothing soft about Chelsea this time as they pass test of character
Nizaar Kinsella at Stamford Bridge
CHELSEA’S players showed Mauricio Pochettino’s words were ringing in their ears during a hard-fought win over Brighton.
There was no hiding place for the expensively assembled squad after they were called “soft” and lacking in “maturity, personality and character” by their manager last weekend — and two hellish minutes tested their character again yesterday. Winger Facundo Buonanotte curled home a brilliant 43rd-minute strike, before Conor Gallagher was sent off just before half-time.
Having beaten only Luton at home in the League this season, Pochettino would have been forgiven for fearing the worst while down to 10 men and just 2-1 up. But he instead backed his players, making no defensive substitutions at the break and telling his team they had a great opportunity to right some wrongs.
Enzo Fernandez and Levi Colwill had scored their first League goals in the first half, but rather than sit on their lead, Chelsea extended it. Mykhailo Mudryk sped onto a pass in a lightning counter-attack involving Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Jackson to win a penalty after James Milner brought him down in the box. Fernandez scored from the spot, vindicating the decision to leave three forwards on the pitch despite having a man less.
Momentum swung back in Brighton’s favour when substitute Joao Pedro headed in a corner, just as it was shown there were 10 minutes of added time to be played.
Substitute Armando Broja played with a bloodied nose, defender Axel Disasi celebrated his sliding tackles and Thiago Silva, fresh from his big mistake last weekend, made several late clearances. Craig Pawson also gave Brighton a 99th-minute penalty for a potential handball by Colwill, but VAR intervened, allowing the referee to reassess his decision on-screen and realise it had hit the central defender on his head.
At the end, both squads surrounded the officials, which Pochettino believes was not helped by the “massive confusion” caused by VAR decisions. He said he was “exhausted”, having played peacekeeper, as players from both teams reacted angrily toward each other.
Pochettino was pleased to see the fight and togetherness on display. “It is not just about building on the pitch, you need to belong to the team and the club to settle and grow — get experience,” he said.
“There’s more to this game than playing from the back, playing with three or four offensive players. We needed this kind of game to challenge us to play like a team.”
Pochettino stressed that the youthful nature of his side has not caused Chelsea’s under-performance in recent weeks. But the speed at which his team has been thrown together has left them lacking cohesion.
Chelsea, still 10th in the League table, badly needed the win in the race for Europe, but the battling nature of the victory could have greater meaning, with a tough test at Manchester United coming on Wednesday.
Evening Standard Limited