Chelsea-Brighton & Hove Albion Preview
The scoring drought for Chelsea may have ended, but Antonio Conte has a whole other set of problems heading into their Saturday matinee kickoff at Brighton & Hove Albion.
The Blues (14-5-4) ended a season-worst 331-minute scoreless drought across all competitions Wednesday when Michy Batshuayi turned in a cross from Kenedy from close range in the 55th minute to give them a 1-0 lead in their third-round FA Cup replay against Championship side Norwich City.
Chelsea, though, could not hold that lead as the Canaries found an equaliser deep in second-half stoppage time through Jamal Lewis. That led to a controversial 30 minutes of extra time in which Willian was booked for diving in the penalty area on a play that was not further scrutinised by video assisted review before both Pedro and Alvaro Morata were sent off by referee Graham Scott.
In the end, the clinical ability of Chelsea's penalty takers, capped by substitute Eden Hazard, allowed the Blues to progress to the fourth round opposite Newcastle United after they finally defeated Norwich City 5-3 on penalties.
Conte, who had seen VAR debut during his time in Serie A with Juventus, was furious it was not used after it appeared Willian had been clipped by Norwich City defender Timm Klose in the first extra period.
"We need to improve if we want to use this new system," Conte said. "I like to accept the referee's decision. But if we want to use a new system, I can't accept a big mistake. The Willian penalty was a big, big mistake, not of the referee on the pitch but the one watching the TV.
"I hope it wasn't a referee because if you don't see this when you are watching on TV, maybe it will be impossible to see this type of situation when you are on the pitch."
Of bigger concern resuming league play will be the lack of two key offensive players. While Morata had been fluffing his lines and spurned multiple chances against Norwich, he was still industrious enough to create scoring chances he just did not finish.
Batshuayi has been rumoured to be someone who could leave Stamford Bridge in the January window, and was keenly observed by West Ham manager David Moyes on Wednesday, but the lack of attacking personnel up front for this match makes it all but certain the Belgium international will feature.
Like everyone else in the bottom half of the table, Brighton & Hove Albion (5-8-10) are part of the relegation scrap and enter this contest in 16th place on 23 points. Their 17 goals are ahead of only last-place Swansea City and they have just one win in their last 12 league matches (1-5-6) after a 2-0 loss at West Bromwich Albion last Saturday.
While they have lost just twice in 11 league matches at Falmer Stadium (3-6-2), draws are not going to be enough to stay in the top flight, and manager Chris Hughton knows this as he continues to field an aggressive starting XI.
"My thought process hasn't really changed, ultimately you've got to get enough points wherever they come from," he told Brighton's official website. "We are a team that play with two wingers with Pascal (Gross) as a number 10.
"A lot of clubs don't and will play with only one winger and one wide midfielder. It's not through a lack of trying to be offensive, and generally we don't change the way we play at home or away from home. It's about having that quality, and the players can produce in those moments."
Brighton, though, have scored two goals in each of their last two contests there, including a win over Crystal Palace to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup and a date at Championship side Middlesbrough. One player who could help the offence is striker Sam Baldock, who made his season debut against West Brom after a calf injury prevented him from playing until this month. He had 10 goals for the Seagulls during their run to promotion and is eager to contribute.
"Momentum is important and if you can pick up some results in a row then you'll do well - that's the sort of belief we have in the group," Baldock said. "The table is so tight and every team in the bottom half will be saying the same sort of thing - if they can get a run together then they'll do well, and that's exactly what we're thinking."
Chelsea's Spanish faction provided the offence in the 2-0 Boxing Day victory at Stamford Bridge. Morata finished a cross from Cesar Azpilicueta just after the re-start, and Marco Alonso headed a corner from Cesc Fabregas on the hour.
Updated January 17, 2018