The optimists among Newcastle’s fanbase predicted that with so many players freshly returned from international duty Chelsea would arrive here fatigued, fragile and, quite possibly, fractious.
How wrong can you be? Frank Lampard may have fretted that a Saturday lunchtime kick-off was tough on his widely travelled squad, but his players looked formidably fresh throughout. Indeed they headed back to Newcastle airport on Saturday afternoon with the adrenaline high of a team unbeaten in 12 games and on a run of five wins in all competitions. Underestimate their title chances at your peril.
Chelsea moved, for a few hours at least, to the top of the table for the first time since 2018. “We played well and it’s pleasing but I’m not going to get excited at being top for five minutes,” Lampard said. “It’s a long season and the Premier League’s tough and relentless.”
Just ask Steve Bruce. At the end of a week when his predecessor, Rafael Benítez – still much adored at St James’ Park – suggested he and Newcastle have unfinished business, the home side looked in peril of conceding virtually every time Chelsea attacked.
“There’ll always be grumbles,” said Bruce. “But Chelsea are very, very good. When you go high up the pitch, they can really hurt you.”
Chelsea’s impressive centre-forward, Tammy Abraham, epitomised this threat and went close to opening the scoring after connecting with Hakim Ziyech’s deceptive, curving delivery before Karl Darlow tipped his header away for a corner.
It proved a strictly temporary reprieve. Timo Werner and Mason Mount duly made the most of that set piece by combining in a short-corner manoeuvre, resulting in Mount crossing and Federico Fernández bundling the ball into his own net under pressure from Ben Chilwell.
Bruce had devoted Friday morning to rehearsing such dead-ball routines but, on this occasion, practice failed to provoke defensive perfection.
Fernández protested he had been fouled by Chilwell but a VAR review confirmed the impression it was a pretty forlorn appeal and the goal stood.
From then on, a litany of visiting chances were variously spurned, saved or missed by inches. As his teammates chased shadows, Darlow excelled, once again confounding those who feared he could be an inadequate understudy for the injured Martin Dubravka.
With Werner proving particularly adept at using his glorious change of pace to embed himself behind the home backline, Chelsea’s sole concern must have been that the lead was not more comprehensive. Tellingly, the only real criticism of Werner was his failure to polish off a series of invitations to evade Darlow’s reach.
As Chelsea monopolised 85% of first-half possession, Newcastle morphed from a nominal back three to the most deep-sitting of back fives.
Admittedly the home side missed their injured top-scorer, Callum Wilson, but the artistic geometry of the visiting passing and movement surely dictated that even Wilson would have struggled for meaningful touches.
Sean Longstaff did little wrong in central midfield, tending to be involved in most of Newcastle’s better moments during a marginal second-half improvement, but he could hardly turn the tide alone.
Newcastle’s need to take the odd attacking risk afforded Chelsea greater space in which to counterattack. Perhaps inevitably, one such break prefaced Abraham’s shot flying in off the inside of a post.
Appropriately, the creator was Werner. After intercepting a home throw-in, the German yet again deconstructed the defence with a wonderful dribble featuring the dodging of Longstaff, Fernández and Fabian Schär before he supplied Abraham with the vital pass.
Longstaff responded by driving a rising shot against the crossbar, but by then any Geordie optimism was long since extinguished.