Eden Hazard's goal enough as Chelsea edge West Ham 1-0 at Upton Park
LONDON -- Eden Hazard's first-half goal was enough thanks to some superb Thibaut Courtois saves as Chelsea defeated West Ham 1-0. Here are three quick observations from Wednesday night's game at Upton Park.
1. Hazard provides the crucial goal
It was a night when Eden Hazard scored a rare headed goal and Chelsea once again showed their own mental fortitude to beat West Ham United 1-0. Despite how rocky this match was, the Premier League leaders just keep on rolling forward.
Jose Mourinho had claimed on Monday that the key to winning any title is not what anyone else does, but rather maintaining "an emotional balance" at all moments. On those nights when it isn't going too well, that means staying assertive when openings present themselves in attack and maintaining durability when under pressure at the back.
Chelsea showed both qualities in abundance at the back. Take the match's key moment, on 23 minutes, when Hazard produced the winning goal. In the period before that, West Ham had forced two of their best chances of the game and were finding plenty of openings amid Chelsea's structure. It looked like the leaders could be there for the taking. Then, Chelsea took their chance in the manner champions do, killing the opposition's momentum just when they might have been getting confident.
Cesc Fabregas fed Ramires on the right, who flicked in for Hazard to nod in from close range. That may have ultimately won the game, but it didn't end Chelsea's struggles. West Ham ensured they went on for the rest of the match and had many opportunities as good as Hazard's to get back into it.
Diafra Sakho missed many of them, but it wasn't all down to him. Thibaut Courtois was superb in goal (although the save of the match probably went to Adrian for one acrobatic second-half stop from a Ramires header), and there were some big challenges from big players.
There were also moments when Chelsea really dug in. That was never clearer than when late in the second half, the ball suddenly seemed to break free for Enner Valencia. Gary Cahill however got his feet across and simply refused to remove them until he'd claimed the ball. (There was also a late claim of handball against Cahill, something referee Andre Marriner waved away.)
It wasn't pretty but it was productive, much like the night for Chelsea as a whole.
2. Young Zouma again shows his versatility
Mourinho has said that Kurt Zouma's future is not in midfield but the 20-year-old is having no problems there at the moment. It was the foundation of another solid Chelsea win, following Sunday's 2-0 League Cup win over Tottenham Hotspur. That selection came despite Mourinho saying he wouldn't go for the same setup again, but that was no double bluff.
Zouma offered triple protection of that defence, as Fabregas and Ramires also tucked in closer alongside him than normal. Zouma was certainly willing to get in close to defenders, offering five meaty tackles; Nemanja Matic's average in Premier League games is 3.8.
The youngster's rawness was occasionally exposed by a slight rashness in some tackles, something Matic doesn't display, which perhaps explains why Mourinho set up with more protection around him. One flip side, though, was that Chelsea may have missed the young defender's style at the back. West Ham got at them down the wings a lot and created a lot of chances when they managed to bypass Zouma.
Both John Terry and Cahill often struggled with the physicality of West Ham's attack; Diafra Sakho got more space around them than would have been anticipated. It says much that Chelsea needed at least four fine Courtois saves, and one big lunge from Cahill, to prevent an equaliser.
Chelsea, however, had just enough durability. Zouma has done an able deputising job for Matic, who finally returns for Wednesday's Champions League round of 16 second leg against Paris Saint-Germain.
3. West Ham play well again, still lose again
West Ham have now gone seven games without a win, but other than the dismal FA Cup defeat to West Brom, you'd be hard pressed to find too many poor performances. They have often been rather good; Wednesday night's game was yet another example. West Ham put it right up to Chelsea, and arguably deserved a draw. They couldn't secure that point, though, because they couldn't finish any of their many chances.
Sakho was the biggest culprit here, wasting as many as seven. They came in all shapes and forms, from balls flashed across the box to scrambled opportunities and close-range headers. Either way, they weren't going in, and it is why West Ham have started to drift down this table.
To give Sam Allardyce his due, it was precisely the issue he pinpointed when there was more fanciful talk about top-four finishes around Upton Park in October. Back then, he intimated that their form would level out unless the strikers (namely Sakho and Valencia at that point) could maintain their scoring runs.
They could not, but it is hardly all their fault. Injuries have forced various absences, Andy Carroll came back into the team and their cohesion has been broken. That was quite clear here, as there were many occasions when Sakho was left to run at Chelsea's defence alone while Valencia veered out wide.
It played a part in so many chances going wide of the mark. It also meant West Ham were again respectable, but just not ruthless.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.