It’s amazing how a few moments can so thoroughly change the mood at a football club. How one – one incorrect refereeing decision, one swing of a right foot, one breathtaking second while a ball whips through the air – can lift it. How a second and third can send it crashing back down to earth.
But fortunately for Chelsea Football Club, the moments that defined a frantic Saturday afternoon at Stamford Bridge were the fourth, fifth and sixth. Trailing 2-1, reeling, and tumbling toward a third consecutive loss, the Blues conjured up three massive goals in the last 20 minutes to beat Watford 4-2.
The previous two losses, and a blown two-goal lead in the Champions League earlier this week, prompted talk of a crisis at a club that has heard far too much of that chatter in recent months. A lone opening day defeat to Burnley had incited it too. Chatter of Antonio Conte’s supposedly impending exit. Reports of player discontent.
But in 20 second-half minutes on Saturday, with discontent threatening to be exacerbated, it instead evaporated, even if only momentarily. Michy Batshuayi wiped away frowns, and Caesar Azpilicueta gave Stamford Bridge the celebrations it craved with an 87th-minute winner. Conte, for his part, flung himself into the crowd.
The reality, though, is that Chelsea wasn’t much better than it had been in previous defeats to Manchester City and Crystal Palace. Conte brushed off the rumors and reports at a news conference Friday, but, at least for 70 minutes, his players couldn’t quite do the same on a sunny Saturday afternoon in West London. They looked uneasy and restless. They struggled to keep the ball, and struggled to keep Watford out of their penalty area.
Pedro temporarily rendered all that irrelevant with a wonderful goal 12 minutes in. His screamer was enabled by a corner that shouldn’t have been. Eden Hazard drove the the byline and attempted to cut back as he reached it, but his Cruyff turn was messy. The ball flicked off his own heel and out of bounds. But after hesitating, the assistant referee pointed his flag toward the corner’s.
A half-minute later, the Spaniard uncorked a shot that spun into the very top corner, off the post and into the opposite side-netting. It was as close to perfection as an action on a soccer field can get.
In the aftermath, Chelsea appeared to sort out its midfield spacing and briefly bossed the game. It stretched Watford horizontally. Cesc Fabregas found space on the ball. He also got forward on one occasion, and Alvaro Morata picked him out for what could have been a second. But his weak chip was kept out by Heurelho Gomes.
But Watford grew back into the game, and Abdoulaye Doucoure stayed alert on a long throw just before halftime. He was first to a bouncing second ball, and smashed it just inside Thibaut Courtois’ near post:
Chelsea was all over the place early in the second half. Watford really could have had a second, third and fourth goal in the first nine minutes. Richarlison skewed a would-be tap-in wide of the far post, and then couldn’t direct a relatively free header goalward.
But in between his two misses, Roberto Pereyra benefited from a Chelsea back three that, positionally, was out of whack. Richarlison found him at the penalty spot, and the Argentine finished with aplomb, lifting the ball over a sliding Courtois.
Chelsea appeared to be a long way away from finding a route back into the game. But Conte replaced the unimpressive Morata with Michy Batshuayi. He replaced wing-back Marcos Alonso with attacking midfielder Willian.
Minutes after the second switch, Pedro, now playing right wing-back, curled in a cross, and Batshuayi darted in front of his marker. His header was excellent:
Azpilicueta then crept in at the back post to nod a similar cross off his own shoulder, and into the back of the net. It was a fittingly imperfect goal to cap a very imperfect performance.
But it was just as crucial on the day as it is in the big picture for Chelsea. Batshuayi added a fourth in stoppage time to add a bit more color to that picture. Three-straight losses would have been calamitous. In the end, Saturday was just the opposite.
– – – – – –
Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.