It may still only be August, the season is still clunking through the gears, the sense of drama is yet to take a grip, but it did not feel like it at St James‘ Park yesterday.

This was a potentially crucial test passed by Maurizio Sarri‘s Chelsea in their emergence as title contenders again.

There are few more hospitable or friendly places to visit in England than -upon-Tyne, but on a day like this, when late summer is so cold that it feels like winter, when the rain sweeps in off the North Sea horizontally and the team in black and white stripes are trying to suffocate you, it is horrible.

Sarri sensed it before he arrived on Tyneside, well aware Chelsea had been beaten 3-0 at the same ground on the final day of last season and he knew it from the moment he realised Newcastle would deploy a five-man defence, with four more defensively-minded midfield players in front of them.

The Italian may have a had a brand of football named after him in Italy, so called ‘Sarri-ball‘, but Rafa Benitez has always been more of a pragmatist than a stylist.

Sacrificed

The Newcastle manager knew how to make things difficult for Chelsea and his team sacrificed attacking endeavour for defensive resolve.

For all the criticism this might attract from those who hold on to a more romantic ideal of how a Newcastle team should play at home, it almost worked perfectly.

The Magpies were determined to stifle and disrupt, squeezing the space in the final third so that Chelsea were forced to go sideways and backwards in search of an opening.

They had to be patient, they had to probe and prod, they had to make the most of the few chances that came their way.

Even after taking the lead, with a controversial second-half penalty, when Fabian Schar was rather harshly judged to have brought down Marcos Alonso inside the area – TV replays showed he had got to the ball first – Chelsea had to delve deep.

Newcastle had rarely threatened to score, lacking the numbers in open play, while Chelsea defended set pieces solidly, but they equalised with eight minutes remaining when substitute Joselu darted in front of a static David Luiz and glanced a header inside the near post from DeAndre Yedlin‘s cross.

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Given how well Newcastle had defended up until that point, a draw seemed certain, only for Chelsea to snatch a winner, Yedlin slicing an attempted clearance of Alonso‘s weak shot into his own net.

If that was fortuitous, you could also argue that a team that has 81pc of possession away from home tends to make their own luck.

“We knew that here would be difficult, especially for us, but also every team,” said Sarri.

“Chelsea lost here last season, so did Manchester United and Arsenal. It is not easy to play here against this opponent. This game was much more difficult (than against Huddersfield and Arsenal).

“In Italy, I had never seen Rafa play with five defenders, so compact, defend so deep. We had to move the ball very fast, but it was hard. To win here is difficult, so we have to be pleased.”

Benitez, meanwhile, dismissed scathing TV criticism of his team‘s ultra-cautious tactics and offered a staunch defence of his methods.

Sky pundits Graeme Souness and Jamie Redknapp delivered a stinging appraisal of the Magpies‘ display, with Redknapp claiming Newcastle should be “embarrassed” to play with a five- man defence at home.

Benitez‘s was calm, rather than angry in his response, but was just as forthright.

“When I was with Liverpool we beat Real Madrid 4-0 at home and we were very offensive,” he said. “When I was at Napoli I was attacking all the time – we were offensive. When you are Newcastle United you have to manage in a different way because you are in the Premier League.

“You have what you have, so I want to give credit to my players for the effort they make in every game. It depends on the car you have; you have to drive that car in the best way.

“It is not about me and the tactics; it is about players, the results and the bigger picture. Last season we were the best team in the bottom 10 and we hope to do the same again if we can.

“You can be a little bit better on the ball, so I am not happy with how we gave the ball away, but at the same time we have to understand what we have and how we can maximise what we have.

“As a manager, you have to make decisions and as a pundit you have to give opinions. That‘s it.

“I remember a long time ago, I don‘t know if it was when Guardiola was at Barcelona, but they had 80pc (possession) against Celtic and they lost.

“Possession is just for the TV, for the stats. It means nothing. You have to do what you have to do to maximise what you have. Everyone has their own tools.” (© Daily Telegraph, London).

 

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