As the Premier League returned after a slightly less comatose international break than usual, one of the main talking points was how Chelsea would respond to being thoroughly outplayed on their own patch by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
It was a meek performance by the Blues, with the expensively assembled visitors comfortably picking apart the usually resolute three-man defence, and the usually mercurial Eden Hazard flattering to deceive.
The champions’ form went from bad to worse, with a poor performance contributing to Crystal Palace gaining their first points of the season, with Wilfried Zaha leading the south Londoners to an improbable victory on Saturday afternoon.Embed from Getty Images
Antonio Conte had to do without his new £70million centre-forward and talisman, Alvaro Morata, after he limped off before half time in their tame defeat to the league leaders. Perhaps the champions’ lack of depth up top was best personified by the fact that the Italian chose to bring on Willian in Morata’s place against City, shifting Eden Hazard up front as a makeshift number nine, despite having an out-and-out striker in Michy Batshuayi on the bench.
The young Belgian, fresh off scoring a last-gasp winner in the breathless 2-1 win away to Atletico Madrid days before, must have been extremely frustrated with his manager’s decision. It is perhaps slightly unfair on Batshuayi, with him possessing a prolific goalscoring record when called upon; scoring the goal that won the Premier League title at West Brom, as one of four goals in the final month of the season.
The £33million signing from Marseille also added his first Chelsea hat-trick in a 5-1 Carabao Cup win over Nottingham Forest, a week before his heroics in Madrid. All of this combined lead to many questions in the newspapers about whether the champions need to dip into the transfer market in January for a striker, with an apparent hesitation to field the youngster when needed.
Conte hasn’t tried to hide his distrust of Batshuayi’s abilities, openly courting Fernando Llorente all through the transfer window, before losing out to Tottenham on deadline day. There was also talk of Andrea Belotti swapping Turin for west London, with astronomical fees topping £90million discussed. This must have bemused the Belgian, who has never done anything but score when given rare chances in the first team, whilst being largely frozen out in favour of Diego Costa in last year’s title-winning side, perhaps understandably with the now-departed Spaniard poaching 20 goals.
Batshuayi took the plunge to ambitiously choose Chelsea last summer over their London rivals Crystal Palace and West Ham, who would almost certainly have given the Belgian an assured spot in the starting 11. Even yesterday, at Crystal Palace, 2-1 down with half an hour to go, looking for an equaliser, Conte chose to withdraw him in favour of Pedro, and opted for a striker-less formation to try and change the score, though to no avail.
Overall, it will be interesting to see how Chelsea react to the enforced absence of their top scorer, with five games before the end of the month, including a critical Champions League double header home and away against Roma, and a game against beleaguered Ronald Koeman’s Everton side in the EFL Cup.
After yesterday’s shock defeat to winless Crystal Palace, the newspapers will paint this as some sort of mini-crisis, with Michy Batshuayi offering little in the way of attacking threat at Selhurst Park, before being withdrawn for Pedro at the hour mark.
Conte mentioned in his pre-match press conference that the Spaniard was in contention for Wednesday’s visit of Roma, but he likely will not be risked from the start. Thus, barring any surprise selections, Batshuayi has two matches now – the game against Roma in midweek, plus an almost definite start in the EFL Cup, to make a real impression on his manager to become more than a last resort if all other options are exhausted.
Should he put in good performances and score a couple of goals, the Italian will have no choice but to give him more first-team minutes, and upgrade him to play more of a starting role in the Premier League. It is clear he has talent, and Chelsea’s form should not suffer too much without their new flavour of the month, with a young upstart like Batshuayi ready to step in and make his mark.
Written by Jordan Sen.