Premier Analysis: Persistence pays for Chelsea, but it's not enough for unhappy Jose
So it wasn't vintage Chelsea – Jose Mourinho testified to that quite clearly post-match – but when the Blues inevitably lift the Premier League trophy in May it'll be one of those games everybody forgets anyway.
For almost an hour this was relatively straightforward for the Blues at Stamford Bridge, if largely frustrating as their struggling visitors kept them at bay with some resolute defending. QPR were by no means poor in this game – had it not been for Eduardo Vargas's shove on Eden Hazard with 15 minutes remaining, the R's may well have hung on for a scrapped point.
"It was fantastic work by Harry to organise his team defensively, but with our quality I would expect us to be stronger than that," huffed Mourinho after the game. "My team didn't play well, or as well as I was expecting. We had periods of good football, but not consistently. I was expecting more."
But Chelsea can attribute their victory to some more fine work in midfield, as four of thieir five twinkle-toed starters in the middle prodded and probed their way around a well-organised QPR backline and, eventually, got their rewards. The exception was Willian, who was quiet on the right before being withdrawn for Didier Drogba just after Charlie Austin's equaliser against the run of play.
My team didn't play well, or as well as I was expecting"
Hazard was a worthy match-winner after continually leading assault after assault on Harry Redknapp's side, before finally unlocking the victory with his usual brand of fearless running. Even when the chips were briefly down, the tricky Belgian didn't deter from his unselfish search for a winner. Oscar's wonderful opener came as part of a hard-working display, Cesc Fabregas grabbed yet another assist (his ninth in 10 Chelsea league games) and Nemanja Matic was effortless in his excellence (more on him later).
Mourinho's men began as expected, penning in QPR with possession and denying counter-attacks with high pressing. They squandered two opportunities within the first 11 minutes; Oscar scuffing wide after a lovely flick from Diego Costa, before Branislav Ivanovic failed to convert a low Willian cross. Costa was an excellent outlet in the opening exchanges, bringing others into play at the expense of his own chances of scoring.
It took QPR a while to get a foothold, and for the first 45 minutes lone striker Austin was more likely to strain his neck than get on the end of anything meaningful.
Eventually, though, the Blues' pressure paid off. An attack from deep was started by Fabregas, who then burst forward to collect a pass from Costa, sucking in three defenders before laying off for Oscar to sweep home with a beautiful finish Nelinho would have been proud of.
Yet more fine work from the Spaniard earned him his ninth assist in 10 league matches this season, but it was his Brazilian team-mate who Mourinho reserved special praise for post-match.
"I think Oscar was our best player," said the Portuguese. "For 90 minutes, not for the goal but for how dynamic he was. When the team lost the ball he was always sharp. He played Sunday, he played Tuesday, he played today. Some other guys didn't play midweek so I would expect them to be fresher. But he was our best player."
Then came a dry spell for the Blues. They'd peppered the box with crosses all half; a combination of successive corners and bursts down the wing – but Redknapp's men surprised even him with their ability to deal with the hosts' penalty-box bombardment.
"The one thing I was dreading most before the game was corners, but we dealt with those great today and that was encouraging," declared the R's chief. "We had to defend loads early on." Praise be to Richard Dunne.
And so Chelsea led by one at the break, comfortable if lacking a killer edge. QPR would need more to find more to trouble them at the other end – and they'd do it too.
"I don't think even in the first half we were terrific," grumbled Mourinho. "There were periods, 10-15 minutes here and there, but then we wouldn't play well."
And during one of those bad spells they'd be punished. Chelsea began the second half in control, like the first, but this time with little venom in their approach. In the first 15 minutes after the restart they created only one shooting opportunity despite enjoying the lion's share of possession. Redknapp took a risk – he had to – by bringing on Bobby Zamora to join Austin up front and sacrificing a man in midfield.
Within 90 seconds they had an equaliser; Austin linking up with Vargas to start the move, and finishing it with a deft flick from Leroy Fer's daisy-cutter. "When we went 4-4-2 we left ourselves very open because we only had two in midfield," admitted Redknapp. "But we needed a goal and we got it."
And then they made it redundant. When Hazard collects the ball with space in front of him, you know two things: a) he's going to run into it and b) you'd better stop him before he has chance to hurt you.
Vargas did, but unfortunately for the Chilean referee Mike Jones deemed it a penalty. Both managers differed in their opinions after the game, but when Redknapp reviews the replay he will surely conclude that it was more than simply "two little men shoulder to shoulder".
It was just two little men shoulder to shoulder"
Hazard won and netted a penalty against Arsenal at the Bridge almost a month ago, and it's likely the 23-year-old will do it again in the not-too-distant future. The Belgian is rarely bettered at the top of post-match dribbling charts, and this game was no different. His ball-carrying skills make him Europe's dribbliest (it's a word now, OK?) player ahead of Lionel Messi.
But for all of Hazard's guile at the sharp end, his Serbian team-mate Matic allowed it all to happen. The former Benfica enforcer has more than his fair share of admirers through his consistently excellent displays at the heart of midfield, but the 26-year-old is still easily overlooked thanks to the stars in front of him.
Simply, he makes things no more difficult than they need to be. His work across the entire midfield line was admirable once again as he mopped up loose possession before giving the ball to team-mates who can cause more damage than him at the other end.
The final word from Mourinho (for a change), anyway. "I think the guy in charge of the floodlights was in the same mood as the crowd, everyone was sleeping," he groaned after they came on in the first half. "When we scored I realised the stadium wasn't empty. Everyone knows how much I feel connected to this club and the fans. At this moment it’s difficult for us to play at home, playing here is like playing in an empty stadium."
Here's to you, Stamford Bridge.
- Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 13 Premier League games, winning 10 and drawing 3.
- Harry Redknapp has seen his teams lose all 6 league clashes with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
- Oscar has scored 3 and assisted 2 in his last 6 Premier League games for Chelsea.
- Cesc Fabregas has been involved in 10 goals (1 goal, 9 assists) in 10 league games for Chelsea.
- Fabregas now has as many assists this season as Mesut Ozil managed in the whole of last season.
- QPR have conceded in 12 of their last 13 Premier League away games.
- Charlie Austin has scored 24 league goals for QPR since the start of last season (including play-offs), 18 more than anyone else.
- 6 of the Hoops’ last 7 goals have come in the second half.
- Eden Hazard has converted all 8 penalties that he has taken in the Premier League.