Chelsea vs Newcastle: Willian's fine finish secures unconvincing Premier League win for Maurizio Sarri
But Willian supplied a Chelsea second midway through the second half during the only portion of the game where Eden Hazard appeared to be enjoying the false nine role Sarri has thrust upon him.
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The clash of the former Napoli managers – Sarri succeeded Benitez there in 2015 – was always likely to generate above-average levels of discord.
Benitez had a bittersweet spell in charge of Chelsea in 2013 as their interim manager – a term he hated almost as much as a section of the Blues support despised him as a result of previous battles and alleged comments made while in charge of Liverpool.
The Spaniard left at the end of the season having steered Chelsea to victory in the Europa League final, adding to the Champions League glory Roberto di Matteo had brought to Stamford Bridge the previous year.
Benitez has found life on Tyneside even more challenging but only because of the non-investment of owner Mike Ashley – the anti-Roman Abramovich. Newcastle supporters’ vitriol is solely reserved for Ashley.
The love was soon flowing through the home ranks as Sarri’s men required just eight minutes to breach Newcastle’s five-man defence. Thanks to a long ball over the top from his own half by David Luiz of all people. Pedro, having timed his run to leave Clark trailing, took a touch before lofting neatly over goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.
Newcastle fans took that as a cue to begin an anti-Ashley song similar to one that rang constantly in the ears of Benitez back in 2013, mentioning both a portly physique and a desire to see him gone.
Newcastle were back under pressure when Matt Ritchie was shown a yellow card for lunging at Cesar Azpilicueta just outside the box. Luiz met Willian’s free-kick firmly but his header went over.
Florian Lejeune provided the visitors’ first reply of note, a volley straight at Kepa Arrizabalaga, who immediately launched a counter-attack that had black and white shirts scurrying back. Salomon Rondon, Newcastle’s most lonesome of lone frontmen, then fired wide.
The picture was changing however as, suddenly, Newcastle fashioned a clear chance to equalise. Rondon headed on Dubravka’s hoof up-field and the flag stayed down as Ayoze Perez burst through only to fail to hit the target.
Would Benitez and Co regret that? No, as it turned out as Chelsea repelled one corner at the expense of another, which saw Clark leap to get in between Luiz and Antonio Rudiger and head Ritchie’s delivery beyond Arrizabalaga’s reach at the near post.
Chelsea, despite enjoying twice as much possession, had failed to turn that into a half-time advantage, with Willian guilty of springing the offside trap but failing to hit the target straight after the equaliser. Some home fans greeted the half-time whistle with boos, that earlier bonhomie having well and truly evaporated.
Chelsea began the second period with Pedro, played in by N’Golo Kante, forcing Dubravka into an early parry but Newcastle remained determined and energised. Jorginho, the fulcrum at the heart of Sarriball, further enflamed home tempers with an overhit pass to Hazard.
Pedro scuffed a good chance straight at Dubravka before Willian curled home a worthy winning goal in the 57th minute. Hazard made it with a run at the Newcastle defence and a pass to the Brazilian on the left of the box. Willian cut inside to launch a shot that eluded DeAndre Yedlin, Lejeune and Jamaal Lascelles as well as Dubravka.
Perez appealed in vain for a penalty at the other end before Willian almost made it 3-1 with a replica of the opening goal. Luiz again went long but Dubravka got enough of a touch on the shot that followed and Lascelles completed the mop up operation.
Sarri sent on Bayern Munich transfer target Callum Hudson-Odoi in place of Pedro for the final 10 minutes, with the home fans immediately making clear they wanted him to stay.
Ritchie spooned a late Newcastle chance over before Rondon headed another just wide but there were no further alarms for Chelsea, who established a six-point buffer over fifth-place Arsenal.