Beleaguered Chelsea take the heat off Mourinho

Chelsea 4 Maccabi Tel Aviv 0: At last, something for Jose Mourinho to smile about. 

The Chelsea manager has imposed a stricter, more serious regime after his side’s dismal start to the Premier League season. But offered the chance to discover their form against weaker opposition in Maccabi Tel Aviv, Mourinho’s side took full advantage.

Overcoming the shock of Eden Hazard missing a fifth-minute penalty, Chelsea went ahead through a Willian free kick, adding a second before half-time through an Oscar penalty, and then easing to victory with much-needed goals from Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas.

Arsenal will present a much sterner test when they visit on Saturday, but Mourinho’s side will at least go into that game with a measure of confidence. And, undoubtedly, even greater measure of relief.

Mourinho had struck a note of defiance before kick-off when he insisted he was impervious to the question marks that have been placed against him during a torrid start to the season. “My critics... I don’t care,” said the manager. “With my history and the critics, imagine the other ones who have no history.”

However unlikely it may appear, it may well be that the Portuguese’s skin is thick enough to withstand criticism. What was clear from his reaction to Chelsea’s latest defeat at Everton on Saturday was that the manager is fast running out of patience with a group of players whose performances have rendered them barely recognisable from the group that eased their way to the Premier League title four months ago.

Reacting to Saturday’s loss — and no doubt with half an eye on the weekend — Mourinho made six changes to the side that started at Goodison Park, with John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Pedro, Costa, John Obi Mikel, and Nemanja Matic all making way.

In happier times, wholesale changes for the visit of one of the lower ranked Champions League clubs would have been seen as a confident move. On this occasion, it was hard to escape the sense that too many of those changes were made out of necessity.

Among the new faces, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was given the chance to demonstrate he is worthy of more first-team opportunities, replacing Matic in the holding role. The 19-year-old was heavily criticised during the summer for his performance in a friendly in Sydney and, perhaps mindful of the need to make an impression, he found himself on the receiving end of a yellow card after just 47 seconds for a high tackle on Nikola Mitrovic.

Then four minutes later, there was further evidence that this season bears little resemblance to last after Willian had been brought down by Predrag Rajkovic, the visiting keeper, as the Brazilian latched onto Loic Remy’s clever reverse pass. A penalty was inevitable, a goal less so, given Chelsea’s recent failings. And so it proved, with Hazard firing the ball wastefully over the bar.

The tension running through Mourinho’s side was apparent from the number of misplaced, hurried passes and the manager’s animated reaction on the touchline only added to the jittery atmosphere around Stamford Bridge.

Nerves were eased, however, in the 15th minute when Chelsea benefited from an unexpected piece of good fortune. Rajkovic had been lucky to remain on the pitch after conceding the penalty but the home side had cause to be relieved he had escaped a red card when the keeper completely misjudged Willian’s floated free-kick that escaped everyone in the area and drifted inside the far post.

At last Chelsea took control and should have been awarded a second penalty when Loftus-Cheek collected Hazard’s pass before being sent tumbling by another poor challenge from Rajkovic in the 44th minute.

That was quickly forgotten, however, when former Chelsea defender Tal Ben Haim mimicked his keeper’s clumsiness, bringing down Costa — on as an early substitute for the injured Willian — and Oscar showed more assurance that Hazard to convert from the spot.

That goal proved decisive in terms of drawing any remaining belief from the visitors and allowing Chelsea to attempt to play their way back into form in the second half.

Costa relished the opportunity, showing the instinct missing so far this season when he volleyed Fabregas’s cross past Rajkovic from 12 yards out. Fabregas was another player who appeared to benefit from facing weaker opposition and, having played a more prominent role throughout the game, he capped the victory with the 78th-minute fourth, following up to finish from close range after Remy’s shot had been saved.

CHELSEA (4-2-3-1):

Begovic 6; Azpilicueta6, Zouma 6, Cahill 7, Baba 6; Loftus-Cheek 7 (Traore77, 6), Fabregas 9; Willian 7 (Costa 23, 8), Oscar 8 (Ramires 64, 6), Hazard 6; Remy 7.

Subs:

Blackman, Ivanovic, Matic, Terry.

MACCABI (4-5-1):

Rajkovic 3; Shpungin 5 (Peretz 71,6), Tal Ben Haim I 4, Tibi 5, Ben Harush 6; Tal Ben Haim II 6 (Radonjic 64,6), Mitrovic 6, Alberman 6, Igiebor 7, Rikan 6 (Miha 64, 6); Zahavi 6.

Referee:

Felix Zwayer (Germany).


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