Maurizio Sarri hailed Chelsea‘s character after seeing them battle their way to a 2-1 Premier League victory at Newcastle in a dramatic conclusion.
The Blues finally found a way to break down Rafael Benitez’s massed ranks of black and white shirts at St James’ Park as DeAndre Yedlin’s own goal three minutes from time handed them the points. Newcastle substitute Joselu had previously cancelled out Eden Hazard’s penalty.
Chelsea lost 3-0 on Tyneside in the final game of last season under Antonio Conte and new boss Sarri was thrilled with their persistence this time around.
Asked if they had passed a test of character, he said: “I think so. To win here is difficult for Chelsea – it’s difficult for every team here.
“To be drawing five minutes from the end, for us it was more difficult. I think this team, from the character point of view, is a strong team.”
Victory extended Chelsea’s perfect start to the campaign but the Italian was taking nothing for granted when asked how it felt to see them joint-top of the table.
He said: “Nothing, I think, because the honour is after 38 matches, so after three… it’s important to start very well, as well as possible, but now the table is not important, I think.”
Magpies boss Benitez, who was unhappy with both the penalty decision and the free-kick which ultimately led to the visitors’ winner, mounted a staunch defence of his tactics in the face of criticism from television pundits with Jamie Redknapp claiming his players would be “embarrassed”.
He said: “When I was at Liverpool, we beat Real Madrid 4-0 at home; we were very offensive. When I was at Napoli, we were attacking all the time; we were offensive.
“When you are at Newcastle United, you have to manage because you are in the Premier League and you have what you have.”
Here, we look at five talking points from an eventful weekend of top-flight action.
Gunners game without Ozil
Mesut Ozil was conspicuous by his absence as Arsenal claimed their first win under new boss Unai Emery. Emery was quick to deny reports of a training-ground row with Ozil, stating the Germany international’s absence was due to illness.
How quickly Ozil returns to the starting line-up, however, remains to be seen as Emery’s desire for Arsenal to play with energy and press high was evident during a 3-1 win over West Ham opponents still pointless after three games.
Wolves pack at home
Three games in and new boys Wolves have yet to win a Premier League game. But their 1-1 home draw against champions Manchester City was a strong statement that Wolves belong at this level.
Wolves were compact and organised in defence, quick in transition and full value for a point in providing the blueprint of how to combat City.
A first win at West Ham would be welcome before the international break, but no-one will enjoy coming up against Nuno Espirito Santo’s side.
Fox outside the box
You could almost feel Jose Mourinho‘s pain when Harry Maguire drilled home Leicester’s winner in the dying seconds at Southampton. The Manchester United summer target was his imposing physical self at the back for the Foxes and retains his handy knack of scoring goals.
Maguire’s 25-yarder might not have been as trademark a goal as his World Cup header against Sweden last month, but Jamie Vardy was not slow to turn to social media and praise his Leicester and England colleague.
Red all over
Liverpool leapt to the top of the Premier League with a 1-0 victory over Brighton making it three wins from three for Jurgen Klopp’s men.
But it was also a red letter day in other ways as four players were sent off in Saturday’s shortened six-match programme – the biggest walk of shame for nearly three years. Adam Smith and Richarlison saw red in Bournemouth’s 2-2 draw with Everton, Southampton’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg paid the price of a dive and Huddersfield’s Jonathan Hogg lost his head against Cardiff.
Red mist, indeed.
Peter Whittingham is in danger of becoming a quiz answer – the last Cardiff player to score in the Premier League. No Bluebird has managed to do so in the six top-flight games Cardiff have played since Whittingham converted a penalty against Stoke on April 19, 2014.
After the goalless draw at Huddersfield – the second time this season that Cardiff have ended up playing against 10 men – Neil Warnock’s side are now the only side in the top four divisions of English football not to have scored.
It doesn’t get any easier with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City next up.
Here, we look at the impact of the rival coaches.
For the first time as Chelsea boss, Sarri felt able to restore star man Eden Hazard to the starting XI – an upgrade in any circumstances and one that yielded a typically clinical penalty.
There was also a middling first start for Real Madrid loanee Mateo Kovacic as Ross Barkley and Willian dropped to the bench. They were joined there by England’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek following his absence from the matchday squad last week but he did not make the pitch.
Benitez was dealt a pair of injury blows, with captain Jamaal Lascelles and playmaker Jonjo Shelvey both ruled out.
Federico Fernandez, Ki Sung-yueng and Fabian Schar all made competitive debuts in the inevitable reshuffle, with Salomon Rondon in from the start up front.
Benitez, perhaps motivated by the loss of key personnel, adopted a tight, defensive shape and limited attacking ambition. That meant three centre-backs with DeAndre Yedlin and Paul Dummett tucking in to make a back five.
It was an unpretty but mostly effective decision, with the visitors taking 76 minutes to make the breakthrough with a dubious penalty and winning it with a Yedlin own goal.
Sarri continued to deploy his preferred 4-3-3 variant. The only real difference was the presence of Hazard, whose roaming style and ball-playing skill demand a freer role regardless of the system.
As ever the job of relaying the coach’s instructions and preferences fell to his old Napoli cohort Jorginho, a constant communicator in the middle of the park.
Both sides hooked their primary striker and neither Salomon Rondon nor Alvaro Morata can have much complaint.
Both replacements were involved in the equalising goal but while Olivier Giroud was left claiming a foul on the turf, Joselu was the most alert man on the pitch, sneaking in front of David Luiz to nod Newcastle level.
Willian – on for Pedro – floated in the free-kick from which Chelsea’s winner came, with Giroud winning a crucial far-post header. Ayoze Perez, a late arrival, blasted over from his only real chance.