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Chelsea found a way to stay top of the league, although logic was largely cast aside in the process. This was a scratchy performance and Watford, lively throughout, would have merited any other outcome; that they did not achieve it owed to the weight of attacking resources at Thomas Tuchel’s disposal and, in Hakim Ziyech, a matchwinner who has not always seized his chances to shine.
At the end of a long, disconcerting night it felt a relief that football could occupy the mind at all. Play was halted for around half an hour after a fan in the Graham Taylor Stand suffered a cardiac arrest early in the game, with the players agreeing to resume only once they were sure the situation had taken a positive turn. Mercifully the supporter was stabilised before being taken to hospital, with medics from both clubs having contributed to his treatment, and a strange, stop-start but largely engrossing match could run to its conclusion.
Tuchel was clear enough that his team had got away with one. Title‑winning sides normally do, once or twice; he could have made the excuse of a much-changed selection, which came about through a mixture of choice and necessity, but opted for introspection. “That’s not us,” he said. “We were absolutely not ready today for this match. I missed maybe to find the right approach to make my team ready.
“It was a very sloppy, very unusual performance from us. For the first time we were completely underperforming as a team: we did not cope well with first balls under pressure and did not cope well with second balls.”
Once Chelsea had seen out a late siege, Tuchel could reflect that they had escaped intact. They did so because he went for broke in the final quarter, introducing Ziyech for the injured Trevoh Chalobah before enlisting Romelu Lukaku to replace César Azpilicueta. The plan was to pick off an ambitious Watford from there and it worked when, 18 minutes from time, Marcos Alonso nodded Antonio Rüdiger’s diagonal ball into Mason Mount’s path. Mount was in space on the left and clipped an impeccable centre into the path of Ziyech, who swept his first Premier League goal of the season above Daniel Bachmann.
“We tried to infuse some courage with offensive changes,” Tuchel said. This time it worked. The six alterations to his starting lineup had been less successful, although it helped little that Reece James was not fit to travel and Jorginho was deemed ready only for last-resort status on the bench. Andreas Christensen, back in the side despite Tuchel’s hope that dropping him would aid contract negotiations, had a mixed night while Saúl Ñíguez may wallow in another personal ignominy.
Saúl had been substituted at half‑time in his only previous top‑flight start, against Aston Villa in September; he met an identical fate here, having made no impression bar a booking. What next for a midfielder once feted among Europe’s best? “I don’t know where he goes from this performance but he was on a yellow card,” said Tuchel, whose priority had been to tighten Chelsea up.
They had been rocking under heavy early pressure before, in the 12th minute, the referee, David Coote, beckoned the teams to leave the field. The Watford left-back, Adam Masina, was being treated for an injury when some of the players attracted the club medics’ attention to an incident in the top tier of the stand, where security staff were clearing an area of seats. The Chelsea first-team doctor, Dimitrios Kalogiannidis, and the physio, Steve Hughes, ran across the pitch to assist and were soon joined by home colleagues. It became clear a member of the crowd had been taken seriously ill.
Once in the dressing rooms, the players advised that they would come back out if the outlook was confirmed to be brighter. Twenty minutes into the stoppage the man was carried away on a stretcher towards an ambulance, to warm applause, and more encouraging news about his condition quickly followed. Both clubs and managers said their thoughts were with him and praised the medical personnel.
Chelsea improved after play restarted and, soon after striking the near post, Mount finished off a neat move involving Alonso and Kai Havertz. But Watford posed a frequent threat: they equalised before half-time when the excellent Moussa Sissoko robbed Ruben Loftus-Cheek and fed Emmanuel Dennis for a deflected finish; had Edouard Mendy not raced out to deny Tom Cleverley, who was running clear, before the hour they would have given Tuchel a bigger headache.
“What can I say? It’s unbelievable what happened, but that’s football,” Claudio Ranieri said of his team’s fate. The fluctuations of a tumultuous evening, on and off the pitch, had certainly been hard to compute.