Chelsea lose ground in title race as COVID issues engulf Premier League


LONDON — It felt like everyone involved in Chelsea‘s draw with Everton was either chewing their fingernails, or holding on by them. Chelsea will lament the two points dropped and ground conceded in the title race, partly through their own profligacy but also due to a series of brilliant saves from Jordan Pickford. Everton, fielding a makeshift XI without 12 first-team players, scored from their only clear chance.

“It was a freak result for this kind of match,” Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said afterward.

All the while, the Premier League was battling a growing COVID-19 crisis with more matches dropping by the wayside by the day.

This was a Chelsea performance we’re becoming recently accustomed to: Tuchel turning away in frustration as his team enjoyed all the possession in the world, and opportunities, but a lack of a clinical finishing. For Everton, this was the sort of result they can build on — having earned just four points from the past 30 available — but both sets of supporters left Stamford Bridge unsure exactly when they’d see their teams next as COVID-19 takes hold of England for the second holiday season running.

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It was a match in which all of Chelsea’s best-laid plans went awry, even before the teams got to the stadium. On Wednesday, Tuchel spoke of how excited he was to give Romelu Lukaku about 70 minutes against Everton. By Thursday lunchtime, the manager was hearing how Manchester United‘s match against Brighton & Hove Albion at the weekend had already been canned, as he counted the players in and out of the dining room, waiting on PCR tests and seeing who he still had available.

Tuchel said pre-match the thought of pushing for a postponement never crossed his mind, despite COVID-19 cases ripping up his plans. Positive tests ruled out Lukaku, Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi, while they were also without an unwell Kai Havertz, who was waiting on further PCR results.

“We did not discuss one second about it being called off,” Tuchel said. “I don’t know the rules, and I’m not interested in them.”

This was just the third match in the Premier League played under Plan B conditions — in which supporters have to show proof of vaccination or negative COVID test results — and as they started walking along Fulham Road to Stamford Bridge, another game had gone, with Leicester City‘s match against Tottenham Hotspur the next to fall. Before Everton’s beleaguered, patchwork team had even taken to the pitch to warm up, four more matches had been postponed — including their next game against Leicester on Sunday.

“The health of everyone is the most important thing, and if we have to cancel games and if we have to send the right message across, then we’ll do it as it’s our responsibility,” Toffees boss Rafa Benitez said of the COVID situation after the match. “They have to think on how to stop the number of COVID cases, as if they don’t, it’ll be worse later on.”

But despite the disruptions, the match got underway, and Chelsea attacked from the off and immediately targeted Everton’s left side, with Reece James, Jorginho and Mason Mount picking holes in the opposition’s back five. The hosts should have been two up within five minutes as both James and Mount shot wide from decent positions. Chelsea were left peppering Everton’s low-block, clustered 5-4-1.

Christian Pulisic started in the false-nine spot, flanked by Mount and Hakim Ziyech, and found himself valiantly contesting high balls but struggling to carve out clear-cut chances. His best opportunity was a flick with his instep in the 10th minute, which the outstanding Pickford comfortably saved.

By half-time, Chelsea had 13 shots — with Mount squandering a clear one-on-one with Pickford — to Everton’s two. It was attack against defence, Chelsea completely dominant as Everton waited for the briefest glimpse of an opportunity, with Ellis Simms given the thankless task on his Premier League debut of holding the ball up against Chelsea’s first-choice back three.

Tuchel looked increasingly frustrated — at one point performing a remarkable angry pirouette in response to Ziyech and Marcos Alonso squandering possession — while Rafa Benitez cut an increasingly exasperated figure.

The second half was more of the same, Everton looking for the occasional counterattack — more often than not easily repelled by Thiago Silva — and it needed that touch of Tuchel magic to change the game. That came in the 62nd minute, when he introduced Saul and Ross Barkley — shifting Pulisic to left wing-back and playing the Atletico Madrid loanee up front in a position he probably hasn’t played since school.

Seven minutes later, Silva blocked Abdoulaye Doucoure‘s run — extinguishing a rare foray forward from the Toffees — James picked out Mount and he fired past Pickford’s near post. Benitez turned back to his bench, jaw locked in anger and frustration.

It looked like the dam would burst, but Everton rallied and grabbed an equaliser as Jarrad Branthwaite poked home Anthony Gordon‘s free kick. Chelsea ended up throwing everything at the visitors’ goal for the remaining 16 minutes, but Pickford saved brilliantly from a Silva header and kept everything else at bay. It was a performance of sheer grit from Everton, but Chelsea will bemoan those missed opportunities.

“I was happy with the team on the pitch, and I think it was by far good enough to win the game,” Tuchel said. “Do we like to have all our players available? Yes, of course. Do we suffer from that if we don’t have them? Yes, for sure, but it’s never a single reason for a lack of results.”

Chelsea’s defensive frailties were again on show, having now conceded eight goals in their past five league games after giving up just four in their first 12, as they failed to deal with the only time their goal was truly troubled. And there were the familiar issues of having time and space in and around the box, but failing to generate opportunities. Tuchel will be furious with the two points squandered, with league-leading Manchester City now four points ahead.

For Everton, their next match has already been postponed. They’ll have to wait some time to build on this performance, but the hope is they’ll have more of their injured and ill back available.

That’s not to say it’ll ease the pressure on Benitez. In a stadium packed to the rafters, in a game based on claustrophobia, Benitez looked lonely on the touchline, the only socially distanced individual against the backdrop of Everton’s travelling support who held a banner aloft before the game reading: “Benitez Get out of Our Club”. But he got the tactics spot on, given the players at his disposal, on a night where the club’s youngsters came through for him.

“You can say that’s the most important result [of my time at Everton] — we’ve had so many issues with injuries and illness” Benitez said. “It’s a great point, but the way we won the point [was important].”

We’re not yet halfway through the season, but Thursday’s match could yet hold significance by the end of the campaign, whenever that is. Chelsea will hope this was just a bump in the road, Everton the start of a reboot under Benitez. But hovering above all of this on an unseasonal warm night in London, lies the uncertainty of the immediate future of the Premier League as COVID-19 tightens its grip on the clubs and the schedule.



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