Hazard's strike enough for turbulent Chelsea to earn win at Bournemouth
BOURNEMOUTH, England -- Three quick thoughts from Chelsea's 1-0 Premier League win at Bournemouth on Saturday.
1. Hazard strike enough for Chelsea
Eden Hazard likes playing Bournemouth, against whom he has scored five goals in five matches. Chelsea's Belgian wizard is not back to his best just yet as he recovers from a serious ankle injury, but his first Premier League goal since April, the last coming at the same location, took his club above Arsenal in the table and a single point behind third-place Tottenham.
Last season's champions celebrated a victory that was hard won against a 19th-placed team looking headed for a long battle against relegation, and a mistake from former Chelsea goalkeeper Asmir Begovic granted them their 51st-minute winning goal.
In mitigation for Begovic, he had been left exposed by Simon Francis' misread of Alvaro Morata's chipped pass to Hazard, but being beaten at the near post and not getting a strong enough touch on the ball is never a good look for a goalkeeper.
Chelsea chances had been coming from the opening stages despite Antonio Conte's team never looking too coherent in their attacking play. A previous error from Begovic might have granted them an early goal when he skewed the ball straight to Hazard, but Morata repaid the compliment by making an awful hash of a chance laid on a plate.
Morata had the ball in the net in the 28th minute, only for an offside flag, ruled against Cesar Azpilicueta, to deny the visitors. It was a marginal decision at best, and one which Chelsea could count themselves unlucky to be on the receiving end of. Soon after that, Begovic made a fine, point-blank save from Morata, but, not enjoying much protection from his defence, he could not maintain what was often a solo mission against Chelsea's attackers.
Chelsea's goal drew Bournemouth forward, where previously they had sat back and invited on their opponent. Eddie Howe had chosen not follow the lessons of Chelsea's loss at Crystal Palace or last week's scare against Watford, where an opponent pressed from the front and caused problems. By the time they altered their approach and increased their zest, it was too late for a team struggling for clear openings. Jermain Defoe had been subbed off at half-time having had only eight touches of the ball.
Striker Callum Wilson, coming back from a second serious knee injury, came on with 17 minutes to play but was not effective enough to seriously threaten Chelsea. A late chance for Steve Cook was hit straight at Thibaut Courtois. Mission accomplished for Chelsea, achieved without overextending and with a Champions League trip to Roma on Tuesday to consider.
2. No more Mr. Nice Guy?
Antonio Conte was even more animated than usual on the sidelines. His mood was barely improved since Friday's news conference blast at stories linking Carlo Ancelotti with a return to Stamford Bridge and rumours that players are complaining to former coach Steve Holland about training. This season has seen much more of the fiery temperament for which he is notorious in Italy.
Club captain Gary Cahill being dropped to the bench was the most striking item on Chelsea's team sheet. Was Cahill being scapegoated for a season so far in which the defence has been nothing approaching the watertight unit of their triumph? The answer to that lies in whether Cahill starts at Roma.
Summer signings Davide Zappacosta and Antonio Rudiger gave Conte's defence a new look, the Italian wing-back standing in for the injured Victor Moses. In front of them, Tiemoue Bakayoko made sure he was unmissable with a fetching blue hairstyle and did plenty of mopping up of Bournemouth's attempts to reach Chelsea's back three, while not replicating the drive of N'Golo Kante.
Conte seemed happy enough with that unit, in which Courtois was a virtual bystander for long periods. It was the lack of movement in attack that attracted ire, with Zappacosta -- "Zappa," as his manager bellowed at him -- repeatedly urged to make overlaps.
Cesc Fabregas and David Luiz also felt the lash after dithering almost let Jordon Ibe in for an equaliser. One of football's toughest taskmasters is finding much to complain about.
3. Bournemouth in trouble
Such has been the difficulty of Bournemouth's season that Howe has been barely mentioned as a contender for the current vacancy at Everton, the club he supported as a boy. He led the list when Roberto Martinez departed Goodison Park in May 2016.
There is also the sense that Howe wants to see things through, and not leave his club in the lurch. The new stadium being planned for Bournemouth would be very much a house that Howe built, and it would be little surprise if a stand was named after him when it is completed.
For it to be a Premier League stadium, a struggle lies ahead. Too many of Howe's signings have failed to refresh a squad that contains a number of remnants from the club's League One days.
Against his old club, Nathan Ake made an excellent first-half tackle on a galloping Zappacosta but struggled with Morata and Begovic made a number of saves before his key error. At the other end Defoe, booed by Chelsea fans for his Tottenham heritage, continued to struggle.
The veteran has scored just once for the club where he made his name as a West Ham loanee when scoring in 10 consecutive matches back in 2000, although on the scant rations he received, any striker would struggle.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.