Craig Dawson had enjoyed virtually the perfect afternoon. West Ham’s only fit centre-back had been a man mountain, repelling everything thrown at him. The “Ballon D’Orson” flag his own fans had put together was looking apt.
Then the Chelsea substitute Romelu Lukaku burst through and, out of desperation, Dawson pulled. Down Lukaku went, and the penalty was given, a yellow card turning red following a video consultation. Dawson trudged off forlorn.
But Jorginho’s run was stuttered, unconvincing. Like Chelsea, some might say. Lukasz Fabianski will scarcely save an easier penalty. Mercy then. But no: on 90 minutes Marcos Alonso’s cross was converted by another substitute, Christian Pulisic. Football can be cruel.
“He played ever so well,” David Moyes said of Dawson, whose suspension means West Ham will be without a senior centre-back this Sunday against Arsenal. “But he gave the referee a decision to make and today it went against us. We’ve only got ourselves to blame. We didn’t defend well enough in those last four or five minutes.”
And so three successive home defeats did not become four for Chelsea and Thomas Tuchel. When advent started they led the league by one but they will have spent Sunday morning shooting nervous glances over their shoulder. A one-time inevitable Champions League spot needed a little TLC. It came, but only just.
“Honestly games like West Ham are very hard to have spectacular, open games,” said Tuchel, who praised the visitors. “We were a bit stuck in the first half. But that was because of the uncertainty because of the latest results at home. We never lost patience. We understood the situations a bit better. We joined with more courage and with more players when the acceleration was there.”
Tuchel barely left his seat for the first hour, much of it spent scrawling furiously in his notebook. Dawson’s name may well have been added in biro. He requires new centre-backs. Andreas Christensen, a late withdrawal with illness, and Antonio Rüdiger – who Tuchel confirmed after the game would not be signing an extension – are heading to La Liga. Age might even be catching up with Thiago Silva. Moyes on the other hand, until the late drama, had cut largely a relaxed figure, likewise his assistant Kevin Nolan who bellowed instructions sat on a white box. Their one moment of first‑half concern came when Tomas Soucek and Silva clashed heads. Fortunately for those in claret and blue, Soucek was OK.
West Ham’s European exertions have stretched a wafer-thin squad, and six points now from eight games makes them top-four outsiders. Their likeliest Champions League entry route comes via silverware, which Moyes had clearly determined before kick-off making half-dozen changes to his side.
He had virtually a whole eye on the Europa League semi-final first leg with Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday – Michail Antonio, Jarrod Bowen and Declan Rice were all rested.
“I did because I thought it’s such a big event on Thursday night,” Moyes said. “I wanted to give the players the best available opportunity.”
There was a healthy dollop of pre‑season to the afternoon, sunshine and empty seats aplenty. Chelsea did plenty to shape their own downfall in the first half, with César Azpilicueta – distanced from the front row through a switch to the left of a back three after his confrontation with a fan following the defeat to Arsenal – more nervous debutant than senior pro.
When he dallied too long, Saïd Benrahma nicked in and drew a save from Édouard Mendy. Ukrainian Andriy Yarmolenko almost marked his first league start in 17 months with the opener, flashing a half-volley wide.
Each time Chelsea ventured forward in the first half, they struggled to create. Timo Werner ran into Ben Johnson on the edge of the box, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek hit a tame cross-cum-shot at Fabianski. That was it.
Tuchel reoccupied his seat several minutes before his players returned to the pitch; most likely there was little more he could say. Another docile few minutes followed and then, finally, life. Werner’s point‑blank header was blocked by Dawson. Soon after he did likewise to N’Golo Kanté’s left‑footed shot, Fabianski reacted sharply to hold, having already gone to ground. Chelsea had some wind.
When Fabianski was tested again, pushing Trevoh Chalobah’s effort from distance wide, Moyes determined it was Rice time. Immediately, he drew a foul. More Chelsea pressure followed, this time Mason Mount getting a pair of shots away. Who was there to block? Dawson is not a pointless answer. On came the Chelsea cavalry, and eventually it worked.
What Chelsea crave desperately is certainty. Expectations had been that the Raine Group would announce a preferred bidder this week, but reports Sunday morning suggest an additional stage.
And so, smoke continues to billow from Stamford Bridge. It is unclear though, whether the house is burning down or the Phoenix is mid-rise.