Conte’s Chelsea have gone from champions to lethargic rabble
It was hard to look at Antonio Conte’s side and imagine them being champions of England just 12 months ago.
In a league with clubs managed by Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp, did this lot really conquer all-comers?
It says they did in the record books but one year on only this is clear – Chelsea have gone from Premier League champions to lethargic rabble.
Antonio Conte could yet end his reign as boss by winning the FA Cup next weekend.
But the way their league title defence, and hopes of being in the Champions’ League next season ended here was an embarrassment.
Credit to Rafa Benitez and his players who scented blood and cashed in.
This was one of Newcastle’s most ruthless, competitive displays of the season, to claim a top half finish.
Chelsea, though, drifted into this game, much like their season. Uncertainty everywhere, and with no clear direction.
Worse still was the way the former Champions protected themselves for Saturday’s cup final against Manchester United, and for most of them, the World Cup in June.
Newcastle suspected it would be like this, upped the tempo, were ultra competitive, and crushed the visitors.
Conte, such a passionate touchline presence last season, looked miserable.
He said: “It is true, we did not play a good game. They outplayed us. I think Newcastle showed great desire.”
Dwight Gayle hammered the first nail into Chelsea’s Champions’ League hopes and ensure they finish 20 points and 18 goals worse than last season.
The striker had not scored since February 24, and it was only his sixth of the season.
Matt Ritchie flipped across to the back post, Jacob Murphy got a touch which Thibaut Courtois flapped away.
Gayle nodded home from six yards and it was a deserved goal for United’s positivity.
That goal put Gayle level with Ayoze Perez as United’s top scorer.
But the Spanish No.10 went ahead with his 7th of the season after 59 minutes to seal the win.
Jonjo Shelvey rifled in a shot from 25 yards and Perez rolled himself in front of Andreas Christensen and diverted the ball home.
Chelsea were flattened by the home side’s intensity and will to win.
It was three to Newcastle on 64 minutes, as the away side paid for their lethargy.
A deep Shelvey free kick was squeezed across goal by Florian Lejeune, to find Perez poaching from close range for his 8th of the season.
Moment earlier Chelsea had their best chance. Ross Barkley, remember him, was six yards out with a free shot but Martin Dubravka produced a stunning save.
It was Chelsea at their worst. They will play in they Europa League next season, which Rafa Benitez won as Chelsea boss.
But Manchester United be warned. They can’t, and won’t, be this poor at Wembley next week.
Newcastle players did a deserved lap of honour. A top half finish seemed way off during a run of eight defeats in nine games before January.
A squad labelled not good enough for the top flight has come good and banked £121m of TV cash.
The importance of Benitez knitting together players, fans and the Tyneside community can’t be underestimated.
He is owner Mike Ashley’s biggest asset and should be allowed scope to build the club as he seems fits.
Benitez said: “The final day here is always special because of the atmosphere the fans produce.
“From day one they were pleased with our work. We can enjoy today but there is still room for improvement. There is another year on my contract and I will try to do my best to move forward.”
He should be at the beginning of a project, while Conte is at the end of his time at Chelsea.
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