(Wednesday 2 May 2012)
The price to pay for extended runs in the Champions League and FA Cup is a backlog of Premier League fixtures, which can take their toll through fatigue and weariness. This was Chelsea’s sixth game in eighteen days and the tiredness showed in a lacklustre performance against a lively and disciplined Newcastle team.
Roberto Di Matteo shuffled his side again in an attempt to keep some players fresh. Branislav Ivanovich returned from his three-match domestic suspension while Ryan Bertrand, John Obi Mikel, Raul Meireles, Ramires and Florent Malouda also came back in. But despite these changes the team looked jaded soon after the kick-off.
Chelsea started brightly, with Fernando Torres particularly lively and causing problems for the Newcastle defence. Meireles skied a left-footed shot and then hit a free-kick straight at Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul before Daniel Sturridge dragged a shot wide.
After weathering this storm Newcastle came into the game, forcing Petr Cech into a save before they went ahead in the eighteenth minute through Papiss Cisse, who controlled the ball well on the edge of the penalty area before rapidly lashing a shot high into the top corner of Cech’s net.
After their exhausting run of games Chelsea struggled to respond and couldn’t raise the tempo. With Newcastle’s defensive midfield players protecting their defence it took Chelsea a full twenty minutes to create a real chance, Torres whipping a cross into Malouda, who headed the ball a fraction wide. Then Ivanovich headed a corner over the Newcastle bar.
But Newcastle didn’t just try to hang on to their one-goal lead. Ba forced Cech into a fingertip save before striking the crossbar with a rasping drive. Chelsea could easily have gone into the break two goals down.
Juan Mata came on at the start of the second half in place of Sturridge, taking up a central role in an attempt to build a supply route to Torres, who in the first half was isolated in attack and starved of the ball. While Chelsea’s approach was more positive and a little more lively they failed to create any chances in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, before Drogba appeared as the second substitute, quickly followed by Frank Lampard.
The Newcastle ‘keeper was relatively untroubled. Another free-kick was struck straight at Krul and on the only occasion he was beaten, from a John Terry header, a defender headed the ball off the line. The corner count mounted, and Chelsea whipped in a stream of crosses, but none caused serious problems for the well-organised Newcastle defence.
Newcastle then delivered the killer blow deep into added time. Wide on the left flank the in-form Cisse struck a wicked, swerving shot with the outside of his right foot that corkscrewed viciously over a helpless Cech before dipping into the net.
It was game over, and with it any realistic chance of Chelsea finishing in the top four in order to qualify for next season’s Champions League. To do that, they’ll need to win the trophy in Munich on 19 May, when they play Bayern Munich.
Chelsea’s weary players will now have to try to recharge their batteries to be ready for the FA Cup Final against Liverpool on Saturday.