The masks that a number of Chelsea players have worn during the past few uncertain months started to feel some time ago like symbols of the fact that they have performed like champions in disguise for much of this strangely unpredictable Premier League season.
Diego Costa was the latest to sport one of them on Saturday after sustaining a broken nose in what was called, euphemistically, a ‘duel’ with a teammate in training. Gradually, though, the need for disguise is diminishing and against Newcastle, Chelsea unveiled themselves in much of last season’s glory.
They have not lost now since Jose Mourinho left the club before Christmas and Guus Hiddink took over. Their progress, pockmarked with draws, has hardly been spectacular but the recovery has been steady and against Newcastle, it accelerated fast.
The scale of this defeat pushed Newcastle down into the relegation zone on goal difference below Norwich City. They will have to improve dramatically if they are going to escape. Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend, their new signings, already look like men adrift. Adrift and bereft, wondering what the hell they have got themselves into.
When Townsend scored a late goal for his new team to make the score 5-1, he did not even think about celebrating. He simply turned around and walked back towards the centre circle, shaking his head in dismay at the farrago that had just unfolded. Don’t call his goal a consolation because it didn’t provide any consolation to anyone.
After the match, Newcastle’s embattled boss Steve McClaren manfully tried to eke the positives out of a putrid display. It was a struggle. “We can’t let this derail us,’ he said. ‘We have to stick together.” When he was asked whether some might view the club leaving for a warm-weather trip to Spain as a reward for such a crushing, limp reverse, McClaren bristled. “People say it’s a warm-weather trip,” McAllen said, “but it could be pouring down where we’re going.”
As for Chelsea, their flirtation with relegation is over. They ended this game nine points clear of the bottom three and just two points behind Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. They are surely too far back to mount a challenge for the top four but they may at least be coming into the kind of form that will give PSG coach Laurent Blanc cause for concern.