There are title defences. And then there are Chelsea title defences. As an exercise in exploring just how quickly a steamrollering champion team can be reduced to a frazzled, meandering rabble, Chelsea’s opening half of the season against Burnley at Stamford Bridge is likely to take some beating.
A red card for the captain, Gary Cahill, on 13 minutes was followed by goals from Sam Vokes, Steven Ward and Vokes again as Burnley produced a performance as controlled and purposeful as Chelsea were flaccid.
Reduced to 10 men and 3-0 down at the break against a team they hadn’t lost to since 1971, Chelsea did rouse themselves in the second half, playing with real vigour to push Burnley back. Hopes were raised after a goal from the sub Álvaro Morata before Cesc Fàbregas was also sent off for a second yellow card shown for a lunging challenge. David Luiz pulled back another to make it 3-2 and draw a roar of defiance around Stamford Bridge.
But really this was a disastrous start for the champions, an opening day defeat that some will suggest came heavily trailed. It is no secret there has been discontent around the place, not least friction between manager and club hierarchy. So profound was the ambient gloom during a summer when Chelsea replenished rather than expanded their squad it might have been assumed Antonio Conte’s team would start here already trailing the pack on minus five points, or with the kit-man squeezed into a spar pair of shorts at kick off.
The Chelsea team sheet did have an air of points being made, shoulders shrugged towards the directors’ tier. Jérémie Boga made his debut in midfield, nine years after joining the club as an 11-year-old and moving with his family from Marseille to New Maldon. Antonio Rüdiger played on the left of the central three in defence. Michy Batshuayi led the attack. On the subs bench Kenedy emerged from his doghouse to sit alongside an assortment of kids, one record signing centre-forward and the sub goalie.
For Burnley Jack Cork made his debut in central midfield as Sean Dyche packed the centre of the pitch. And Burnley were hugely impressive here, starting in a rush and pressing hard and high up the pitch. Still, the game had barely got out of second gear when Cahill received a straight red in the 14th minute for a high challenge on Steven Defour. Cahill overstretched as he missed the ball. His studs were visible. Craig Pawson produced the card instantly. Precedents suggest it was fair, although it was by no means a vicious foul.
Moments later Vokes had the ball in the Chelsea net from an offside position after a bout of headed ping-pong as Chelsea struggled to rejig. And on 24 minutes Burnley went ahead via another soft goal on the weekend the world forgot how to defence. Lowton advanced unimpeded down the right and floated in a cross that was missed by David Luiz. Vokes, standing just behind him, beat Thibaut Courtois with a faint contact that dribbled perfectly into the far corner. The Burnley end rejoiced, Dyche punched the air, and Chelsea continued to play like a team worrying away at the edge of this game, astonishingly short on passing rhythm, or anything approaching a way to play going forward without Eden Hazard on the pitch.
In the post-red shake-up Conte had taken off Boga and brought on Andreas Christensen to keep the base of the team the same shape but there was a striking feebleness to the right side of Chelsea’s defence as Burnley went 2-0 up five minutes before half-time. Not that anything should take away from the quality of Stephen Ward’s goal after a short free-kick, the left back weaving into the area past a pair of feeble challenges, then spanking a wonderful shot into the far corner.
Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. At least, this seems to be the case quite often when David Luiz is involved. Within three minutes it was 3-0, with another simple goal: another cross from the right by Defour, another terrible piece of marking by David Luiz, and another simple headed finish by Vokes in hectares of space.
Chelsea were out early after the break and to their credit they rallied. Alonso had a fierce free kick well saved by Tom Heaton just after the hour mark. Morata came on and added a little more guile, holding the ball up well and scoring his first Chelsea goal with a neat finish Willian’s deep cross from the right.
By the end Stamford Bridge was in uproar for all the right reasons as Chelsea pressed hard, shots were cleared of the line, Burnley hung on with great heart and the home crowd were at least able to cheer their bloodied champions from the pitch at the end of a genuinely wild season’s opener.