Chelsea's three amigos divert spotlight from Benitez

Posted by Phil Lythell

Julian Finney/Getty ImagesDemba Ba's early strike was the lone goal in Chelsea's win over West Brom.

After yet another turbulent week at Chelsea Football Club, the 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion gave it a very welcome conclusion.

- Evans: Hoodoos, mistakes and positives for Baggies
- Delaney: Benitez beats the boo boys
- Benitez praises Chelsea fans for backing team


Rafael Benitez's unprompted outburst following the FA Cup win at Middlesbrough had stoked the flames within already disgruntled supporters, which was exacerbated by his backtracking in Friday's prematch news conference. Rather than sticking to his principles, Benitez attempted to claw back some goodwill but only served to make himself even more isolated at a club where he has never been made to feel at home.

It was fully expected that the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge on Saturday would be even more poisonous than it had been in the previous three months, so it was surprising to hear little in the way of vocal protest. Sure, there were the obligatory anti-Benitez songs in the opening minutes of the contest, though they were far less sustained as one had been made to believe they would be. The message toward the Spaniard was clear, though equally obvious was the support for the team from the stands on all four sides of the ground.

Perhaps the muted backlash was due to the bright start that Chelsea made to the game. The Blues began with a distinct sense of purpose, carving out two decent opportunities in the opening exchanges. With the crowd distracted by matters on the pitch, the politics away from it became less prominent. Had Chelsea succumbed to some late Baggies pressure having been unable to kill off a game that they had dominated, you can be certain that the catcalls and acrimony would have begun in earnest. Thankfully, the lead was held and wide-scale revolt was averted.

Whether it was the precarious position that Benitez had put himself in or the sense that this was a match that Chelsea simply had to win, the manager broke from his usual shackles and chose to start the magical trio of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar -- a tactic that has been conspicuous by its absence under the 52-year-old. It repaid him in full by mesmerising the opposition with slick control and sharp one-touch passing. At times, the trio was guilty of overplaying to a certain degree, though the temptation for each player to attempt just one more exquisite layoff must be almost impossible to resist when those three are in such form.

Of the group, it was Hazard who shone the brightest. For a 22-year-old, he shows an impeccable understanding of the game and what is required at a particular point in time. At some moments, he was happy just to be the cog in the wheel of a delightful passing move; at others, he would grab the game by the scuff of the neck and think nothing of not only taking on a series of defenders but also beating them.

The 32 million pounds that Chelsea lavished on the Belgian maestro raised a few eyebrows at the time, and it is hard to say whether that fee has been repaid in full just yet. However, Hazard is becoming as important and influential to the team as Mata, and there is no higher praise than that. Considering this is his debut campaign in the Premier League and that the club has been in turmoil during that period, Hazard's form is all the more impressive. Should the club attain a certain amount of stability with him progressing at the same rate then next season, Chelsea could have a genuine world superstar on their hands.

Hazard might have been the most eye-catching, but it was Oscar who tested Ben Foster in the West Brom goal most often. By the final whistle, it had become a battle of wills between the two adversaries, with the Brazilian stinging the palms of the Englishman four times but never getting past him. On two of those occasions, Oscar will feel he should have done better and found the back of the net, but on the other two -- including one effort in the first few minutes following an inch-perfect cross from Demba Ba -- Foster pulled off remarkable stops to further claims for his mooted return to the international fold.

In the end, Ba's 28th minute strike from close range was the difference between the sides. It could have and should have been a much wider margin of victory, though three points was the order of the day, and that target was met. The result and display will give the manager, the players and supporters some much-needed confidence.

Momentum has to be maintained in the cup fixtures against Steaua Bucharest and Manchester United next week. A dip in performance will see the vultures circle once again, and that can only be a bad thing.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell.

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