The performance might have again often lacked conviction but the verdict from the Chelsea supporters was still unequivocal. A sequence of consecutive Premier League defeats had been halted and Chelsea are back into the Premier League’s top four ahead of pivotal FA Cup and Champions League fixtures, but this match was still most notable for the booming chant of one single word.
“Antonio,” sung the Chelsea fans in a clear and repeated message to owner Roman Abramovich that they are not ready to give up on their Premier League-winning manager.
“Thanks to the fans – they show me great support,” said Antonio Conte. “They are reading speculation and rumours about me. They understood my passion and will to defend this shirt and badge. I am grateful. It’s very important to feel this atmosphere and that people are appreciating my work here in Chelsea.”
Eden Hazard’s inspired match-winning performance suggested that he shares Stamford Bridge’s emphatic assessment, with the Belgian first linking with Olivier Giroud to put Chelsea ahead before cutting inside to deliver a breathtaking finish at Ben Foster’s near post to seal what is only Conte’s third victory in 2018.
Conte blew kisses to his wife in the stands and, while this was a night that will certainly ease recent pressure, Hazard’s individual contribution should not mask wider flaws. Chelsea’s confidence clearly remains bruised following the concession of seven goals against Bournemouth and then Watford and it was noticeable how West Brom were almost rewarded for the bold decision of manager Alan Pardew to attack the reigning champions.
Loan signing Daniel Sturridge had started as a second striker alongside Salomon Rondon in a 3-5-2 formation but the plan suffered a serious set-back after just three minutes when the England forward landed awkwardly and immediately signalled that his involvement had ended.
Another striker in Jay Rodriguez was introduced and West Brom did still put Chelsea under considerable early pressure. Rodriguez soon had a sight of goal and, despite shooting wide, Cesc Fabregas followed in with a late challenge that resulted in a plausible penalty appeal. Matt Phillips’ volleyed cross was then also headed narrowly wide by Rondon.
An even better chance followed when Victor Moses misjudged a headed clearance back across his own goal and, with Fabregas not tracking back, into Rodriguez’s path. Rodriguez, though, appeared shocked to suddenly find himself in so much space and pulled his finish wide.
Chelsea were very definitely wobbling but still the chants echoing all around Stamford Bridge were for Conte and his team did finally begin to establish their rhythm. First Pedro and then Eden Hazard presented chances for Giroud to score on his full Chelsea debut but, displaying a weakness that had so often frustrated Arsenal, his finishes were erratic.
Giroud’s lack of pace was also occasionally evident as Chelsea upped their tempo but it was not long before he did demonstrate his great quality. Hazard was causing increasing panic in the West Brom defence with his direct running and, after gliding past one challenge, played the ball into Giroud’s feet. The France striker had his back to goal but a glancing assist was perfectly weighted for Hazard simply to continue his run and shoot powerfully beyond Foster with his right foot.
Giroud was also displaying physical bravery and, already wearing a bandage after an earlier head injury, required lengthy treatment to his achilles following Jonny Evans’ tackle from behind. There was sufficient discomfort to raise questions over whether he would re-emerge for the second half but the only change was to West Brom, with Pardew bringing on Oliver Burke to provide further attacking support for Rondon and Rodriguez.
A second sustained period of pressure followed, with Burke sprinting behind Davide Zappacosta down Chelsea’s left and only a wonderful sliding tackle from Cesar Azpilicueta preventing his pass from reaching Rondon on the edge of the six-yard box. Rondon then simply shrugged off Andreas Christensen to force a low save of Thibaut Courtois. From the resulting corner, Evans directed a free header wastefully wide.
A bloodied and bruised Giroud did eventually make way for Alvaro Morata to play his first game for almost a month. He was not directly involved but Chelsea immediately extended their lead, with Moses powering into the penalty area and then passing to Fabregas, whose attempted flick cannoned off Craig Dawson to inadvertently dissect West Brom’s defence. Moses had not stopped running and finished calmly past Foster.
Chelsea were finally comfortable and Hazard duly stepped up with his flash of individual brilliance.