Newcastle end with a bang as Chelsea are resigned to fifth place
Ayoze Perez scores twice as Antonio Conte’s side are dumped into the Europa League
Newcastle United’s Ayoze Perez scores his side’s second against Chelsea. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA
Antonio Conte began the afternoon in highly animated form in the technical area and, for a while, became almost hysterical before his mood finally morphed into sulky acceptance.
Long before the end, Chelsea’s manager’s had become oddly static as he stood arms folded, expression disconsolate, on the touchline. Maybe they were saving themselves for the FA Cup final but Conte’s players never looked remotely like a side which kicked off harbouring outside hopes of a top four place.
Ultimately Liverpool’s demolition of Brighton ensured Chelsea were always destined to finish fifth but a performance dominated by Newcastle’s outstanding Jonjo Shelvey, Mo Diamé and Ayoze Pérez was hardly what their manager would have wanted on what seems almost certain to have been his final Premier League match in charge of London’s most politicised club.
Rafael Benítez and Newcastle are no strangers to playing politics and his future here is far from certain but, as he continues vital contract negotiations with Mike Ashley, the owner, Benítez cannot fail to be swayed by the choruses of “stand up if you love Rafa” and “Rafa Benítez we want you to stay,” which echoed, evocatively, to the rafters.
Newcastle ended by securing 10th place but started as if they were the side pursuing Champions League qualification and initially piled on so much pressure that Chelsea could barely escape their own half.
As the decibel level heightened and the intensity of the home tempo turned ferocious Thibaut Courtois did well to repel both Shelvey’s vicious 22-yard half volley and a subsequent angle Diamé shot from the edge of the area.
Chelsea were in near total disarray with the lesser spotted Ross Barkley – making a rare start – struggling to get anywhere near the ball in midfield. Part of that was down to the reality that, alongside Diamé, Shelvey was proving one of the game’s two most influential figures.
As Newcastle’s playmaker revelled in making N’Golo Kanté look thoroughly ordinary he looked every inch an England international. The consensus is that Gareth Southgate has decided against including him in the England squad he is scheduled to name this week but, on Friday, Benítez indicated that Shelvey had not entirely abandoned hope of inclusion. Maybe, just maybe, Southgate has a big decision to make after all.
Benítez will determine Dwight Gayle’s future in the next few weeks and it could well be away from Tyneside. If so, Newcastle’s lone striker signed off by giving his side a deserved lead.
It originated with a Shelvey pass which picked out Matt Ritchie. Along with Shelvey, Diamé and Pérez, Ritchie was in splendid form pulling Chelsea all over the place and, once again, he confounded Conte’s defence courtesy of a left-footed cross from the right.
All that remained was for Jacob Murphy to attempt to, somewhat audaciously, lob Courtois and the goalkeeper to dismissively palm the ball clear – but only as far as Gayle who proceeded to head into the empty net.
By now Conte appeared in genuine peril of technical area implosion. In pointed contrast, Benítez seemed an oasis of calm, typically celebrating the goal by giving his glasses a polish before summoning Jamaal Lascelles over for a detailed tactical discussion.
Shelvey’s desperation to play for Southgate was perhaps manifested in a glorious advance showcasing his clever, quick feet which should have ended in Newcastle’s second goal but instead highlighted the midfielder’s unfortunate knack of invariably shooting wildly off target.
As Shelvey’s shot arced over the bar and he clutched his head in his hands, Conte’s mood darkened. His side had been so appalling that his only consolation was that a subsequently stellar save from Courtois to deny Gayle and a very near miss from Pérez dictated that the score remained 1-0 as Newcastle trooped off to a standing ovation at half time.
Before kick off the Gallowgate End had unfurled a giant banner declaring: “Where there is unity, there is always victory.” It was intended as both a tribute to Benítez’s achievement in steering what remains an essentially Championship calibre squad to mid-table safety and a warning to Ashley not to risk disrupting harmony by alienating the Spaniard.
If Chelsea and Conte are fast approaching a crossroads, Newcastle fans know the ongoing negotiations between Benítez and the board over a prospective extension of a contract which has only a year outstanding remain extremely delicate.
Much as the manager genuinely loves his adopted club and city, trust in Ashley is elusive and it is not impossible that, without assurances relating to transfer market budget and infrastructure improvements this summer, Benítez could depart.
Aiming to avert that doomsday scenario, the crowd chanted his name incessantly. During a short stint as a Europa League winning Chelsea manager Benítez, rather inexplicably, never felt an iota of such love and will doubtless have enjoyed issuing this latest reminder of his enduring coaching abilities.
Not that Chelsea were quite out of it. Presumably adhering to Conte’s half time homily, they livened up in the second half, with Eden Hazard belatedly beginning to impose his talent on proceedings.
Martin Dubravka had been outstanding for Newcastle since arriving on loan from Sparta Prague in January and, backpeddling, the goalkeeper performed wonders to claw Olivier Giroud’s highly accomplished, goalbound, backheel,to safety following the striker’s connection with Hazard’s cross.
Suitably warned Newcastle responded by scoring a second. Again Shelvey was the creator. Indeed his volleyed connection with a half-cleared cross would probably have flown past Courtois had Pérez not flicked out a boot to apply the final touch to ensure its’ passage into the back of the net.
Although Dubravka performed wonders to keep a Barkley shout out with his legs, Pérez soon scored again. This time, Shelvey whipped a free kick in and Florian Lejeune slipped it to the Spaniard to beat Courtois from six yards.