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Yet again, Chelsea were far from perfect. But at a bitterly cold Vicarage Road, in the face of bold Watford resistance and a struggling sense of self, they emerged battered, bruised, and ultimately victorious by two goals to one on a night that went on for longer than it should have.
Mason Mount had given Chelsea the lead, then provided the winner as Hakim Ziyech bagged his first goal of the Premier League season after Emmanuel Dennis had equalised at the end of the first half with his sixth. But those details, indeed the match itself, were almost rendered irrelevant after a fan suffered a cardiac arrest in the stands.
The match was halted by referee David Coote in the 13th minute following a commotion in the upper tier of the Graham Taylor stand. Play had already stopped on the pitch in the ninth minute as Watford’s Adam Masina received treatment after injuring himself putting in a cross, and it was during that break that players such as Marcus Alonso noticed something was wrong.
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Helped was waved over as those in the seats around the fan moved aside to provide room for those tending to them. Meanwhile, both teams were back in their respective dressing rooms keen on definitive news on the fan’s health before continuing.
After around 25 minutes, the fan was carried out having been stabilised and placed into a waiting ambulance. Both sets of players returned and, following a five-minute warm-up, the match was resumed.
Watford had the better of matters before the stoppage, pressing high and giving Chelsea’s midfield no time on the ball. Saul Niguez in particular looked at sea in his second league appearance and was saved from further trouble by being hoisted off at half-time.
He was one of six changes from the starting XI held by Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. Jorginho, Thiago Silva (who replaced Niguez for the second half), Timo Werner, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Hakim Ziyech dropped to the bench, and Reece James dropped out entirely due to injury. Thus, a new front three of Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount was instilled, while Andras Christensen, in the midst of an impasse in contract negotiations, made his first start in four games.
With so much change, it was no real surprise things looked disjointed. Joao Pedro had a shot destined for goal cleared by Antonio Rudiger, then Edouard Mendy had to have his wits about him to keep out another shot before preventing Josh King from picking his pocket in his own six-yard box.
Claudio Ranieri had clearly told his players to be brave, a message reinforced before the last 33 minutes of the first-half got underway. And evidently, Thomas Tuchel had urged his players to be less ponderous on the ball.
The latter played out on 19 minutes when Chelsea had their first touches in the final third, followed by their first in the Watford penalty area when Mount struck a shot off the near post. It was a note to the hosts of the quality of those in blue, but even if it was a warning, there was little they could do about the opener. Rudiger’s dink over the top found Marcos Alonso in the left-hand side of the box, with room and time to play to Havertz, who passed across to Mount for a composed first-time finish into the far corner.
Had Christian Pulisic not mistimed a through pass to Havertz in a two-on-one situation in Chelsea’s favour, they could have doubled their lead three minutes later. Instead, two minutes before half-time, they were pegged back. Watford did not change their tact after going down, and their equaliser was a testament to that belligerence.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was dispossessed on the halfway line allowing Moussa Sissoko to lead a counter. Dennis received the ball as he pulled wide of Rudiger, before carrying the ball into the box and finishing into the far corner via a deflection.
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The second half was far more of an exchange of blows than the first, which is perhaps why Watford will rue how things panned out. Had Tom Cleverley kept his nerve when 40 yards from goal and sidestepped Mendy instead of running into him, Watford might have taken the lead.
On the hour, Ziyech entered the fray to replace Trevoh Chalobah, who had been operating in midfield after Silva’s introduction. The Moroccan immediately took to trying to find pockets in front of Watford’s backline, which grew wider when Romelu Lukaku was brought on for Cesar Azpilicueta and forced Craig Cathcart and William Troost-Ekong a little deeper.
It was from this deeper position that Ziyech was able to make a late surge into the box after a fine team move from right to left resulted in Mount finding space on the left wing. His pull-back went straight into Ziyech’s stride for a left-foot shot high and down the middle but too powerful for Daniel Bachmann to keep out. The goalkeeper, a back-up who will have to step up with Ben Foster out until the new year, should have probably done better.
The six minutes of added time were fraught, packed full of Watford corners but little more than a firmly struck Juraj Kucka free kick from 30 yards that was comfortable punched over the bar by Mendy.
The full-time whistle brought with it some relief for all, even if mostly for Chelsea who maintain their single point advantage at the top of the table while Watford remain in 17th, three points above the relegation zone. Everyone was finally able to leave the cold and head for the warmth for home. And hopefully so will that fan.