Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 0: The Sunday newspapers may have made difficult reading for Chelsea and their Italian manager but the chants of ‘Antonio, Antonio’ ringing around Stamford Bridge during a routine 3-0 FA Cup fourth round victory over Newcastle suggest it is too early to write off Antonio Conte’s future in west London just yet. Transfer deadline day, mind you, looks likely to provide a better barometer.
Two goals from Michy Bathshuayi plus a wonderful Marcos Alonso free-kick, his seventh goal of the season, eased Chelsea into the fifth round on a day when Conte was said to be edging towards the exit door – with former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique already earmarked to replace him.
In fact, you could barely turn a page, in print or online, without finding some kind of story referencing problems, internal or external, at Chelsea Football Club, on the morning of this tie.
Conte, who has reportedly upset the Chelsea board with his perennial moaning about the lack of depth in his squad and a lack of movement in the transfer market, vowed he would “never be silenced and always tell the truth” in some reports.
Others spoke of yet another failed move for a big striker after negotiations to sign Edin Dzeko broke down.
On that front, Chelsea fans will also have been alarmed to see a back-page story claiming Manchester City are lining up a huge bid for Eden Hazard, while news that David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta had both picked up injuries was unwelcome too.
If there was any sense of frustration or disillusionment at the Bridge it didn’t show, however, as a weakened Chelsea team still proved far too good for a second-rate Newcastle side which started well but eventually drifted away without a fight.
But the result didn’t prevent Conte, while praising Batshuayi, from continuing to press Chelsea for more action in the transfer market, which closes on Wednesday night.
Conte said: “We have to be pleased with the result and I was very happy for Michy because for a striker to score is very important for the confidence.
“If you see our squad we don’t have three, four or five strikers at the moment.
“So the club has to make a decision; do we want to bring in new players or do we want to carry on with the same players. I don’t know what will happen.
“I repeat, I am happy to work with these players. But if we have to play Champions League and the FA Cup then three strikers is a minimum. So we have to see what happens in the transfer market and whether we are able to take another.”
Conte insists that Batshuayi will not be required to leave if Chelsea do enter the market, but he certainly left the door open for him to do so despite this display.
“If the club decides to add another player then I don’t know if Michy wants to stay or wants to go on loan.
“In this case it will be the player’s decision, not my decision,” he insisted, before adding that signing anyone this week is by no means guaranteed. The transfer market is not simple and a lot of time you wait until the end to find the best solution. Sometimes there is the best solution, sometimes there is not. But at the same time the club is trying to do their best to improve the team.”
Against Newcastle, Chelsea were two goals to the good by half-time with one foot already in the fifth round – for the 18th time in the last 20 seasons - thanks largely to their pace on the break.
In a sleek move after 31 minutes, which began with a wonderful defence-splitting pass from Pedro, the ball was collected instantly by Hazard, who fed Alonso, who in turn gave Batshuayi a simple task of tapping in from close range.
The second, killer, goal arrived just 13 minutes later and featured another swift break, this time instigated by a Batshuayi back-heel to Pedro in his own half. When the move reached Hazard, the Belgian threaded a perfect pass back to Batshuayi, whose driven shot deflected up off Jamaal Lascelles and into the net.
The victory was completed after 72 minutes when Alonso curled home a trademark free-kick, with Conte immediately withdrawing star man Hazard safe in the knowledge the tie was all but over.
One report yesterday even suggested Cristiano Ronaldo was next on Roman Abramovich’s wanted list. But with Alvaro Morata back in training tomorrow ahead of a home game against Bournemouth on what might prove a vital transfer deadline day — and with both Barcelona and Manchester United awaiting in February — it at least sets up an opportunity for a different ending.
Caballero 7; Ruidger 7, Cahill 6, Christensen 6; Alonso 7, Drinkwater 6, Kante 7 (Ampadu 78; 6), Zappacosta 6; Hazard 7 (Barkley 73; 6), Batshuayi 7, Pedro 8 (Hudson-Odoi 81; 6).
Subs not used:
Eduardo, Fabregas, Moses, Musonda.
Darlow 7; Manquilo 5 (Murphy 77; 6), Clark 7, Lascelles 6, Haidara 7, Hayden 6 (Atsu 83; 6), Saivet 5, Shelvey 7, Mbemba 6, Ritchie 5, Gayle 5 (Sanmartin 64; 6). Subs not used: Woodman, Dummett, Diamie, Yedlin.
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