Antonio Conte has his lift-off and, already, Chelsea feel like a club revived. The 10th permanent managerial appointment of Roman Abramovich’s ownership ended this ferocious derby leaping in delight on the touchline, then burying himself in the front row of supporters in the east stand, as Stamford Bridge erupted all around. After all last season’s dismal toils, this felt like a restorative victory. One win in and, already, Conte is adored.
The finale was brutal for West Ham to endure. Slaven Bilic could justifiably argue that Diego Costa, like N’Golo Kanté, should have seen a second caution and a dismissal long before the substitute Michy Batshuayi nodded down a long punt to the Spain forward just outside the penalty area. James Collins and Winston Reid hesitated as Costa collected 20 yards out, but the low shot fizzed through the clutter and into the far corner of Adrián’s net. The visitors sank to their knees as the forward was engulfed by his team-mates. It will not always be this dramatic for Conte but, for now, a debut victory was all that mattered.
The home supporters in the upper tier of the Matthew Harding stand had held up their tricolore mosaic to welcome the new manager prior to kick-off, albeit the attempts to unfurl a suspiciously official looking banner carrying a message for Conte in Italian were abandoned when it caught on the advertising hoarding. That was hardly the ideal start though the 47-year-old, for all the desire for his own players to exert a measure of control, will have relished the adrenalin-fuelled thunder of the derby that duly ensued. Conte will crave more dominance from his team, but it was still a fine introduction to the frenzy of life in the Premier League.
This was breathless, all crunching challenges and eager surges forward into enemy territory from both sides. Chelsea had begun with 10 of the 11 players who had started the opening day draw with Swansea under José Mourinho last year, the only change the intriguing omission of Cesc Fàbregas for Kanté’s energy. The diminutive Frenchman, introduced to the crowd as the “title winner” he is, dispossessed Andy Carroll within 43 seconds of his debut as if offering a reminder of his form with Leicester City. Less heartening was his lunge on the same player 110 seconds later to earn an early caution.
Yet that was the norm. Costa, the trademark snarl retained, was booked for berating the officials after Oscar’s tumble over Winston Reid’s challenge was not rewarded with a penalty. The Brazilian had rather flicked out his left leg as if seeking contact, though there was encouragement to be gleaned in his early eagerness for involvement.
It had been Oscar’s combination with Branislav Ivanovic which culminated in Adrián conjuring a sharp save down at his near post. Hazard was just as bright from the left, his surge away from Michail Antonio and into space vacated by James Collins just after the half-hour culminated in a shot curled marginally beyond the far post. The half ended with Willian forcing Adrián to tip over a free-kick from distance.
West Ham had rather faded by then, their initial urgency disrupted by the thigh injury which forced their debutant, André Ayew, from the fray. Carroll had provoked plenty of early anxiety in front of the watching Sam Allardyce, Mark Noble scuffing one attempt wide, but they consistently struggled to exploit the space behind the hosts’ full-backs. The suspicion was a fully fit Dimitri Payet would have made a difference though, while Slaven Bilic was busy in dialogue with the French substitute on the touchline early in the second half, the visitors self-destructed.
Antonio, still a makeshift full-back for all his occasional successes in defence last season, collected on the edge of the area and attempted a horribly over-confident dribble away from danger, merely presenting the ball to César Azpilicueta in the process. The challenge which followed inside the box was born of desperation, with Hazard thumping home the resultant penalty. It had taken the Belgian over eight months to open his league account last season, though this reward was deserved for a spritely display. Conte’s celebrations on the sidelines were as manic as those in the stands. Antonio was swiftly withdrawn by Bilic.
In truth, Chelsea’s confidence was pepped by their lead for all that Costa was fortunate to escape a second yellow card for a foul on Adrián. There was still greater structure to their play, and far more fluency to their attack, while Conte gnashed his teeth in the technical area. Willian, fed by a pinpoint slide-rule pass from Oscar, was denied by Adrián’s fine save while John Terry, leaping to meet a corner, guided a header wide just before Payet was flung on to rescue his team.
The expectant hush went up when the winger stood over a free-kick just outside the box as time ticked away, only for Costa to deflect the shot wide. Regardless, Chelsea dithered at the resultant corner and, when Enner Valencia’s shot was blocked, Collins reacted smartest to ram in the equaliser from just inside the box. For a while it felt as if all those demons which had haunted Mourinho and even Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea might come flooding back thereafter, only for Costa to claim the victory at the last. Conte has his springboard.