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Pedro, Willian strike as Chelsea beat Newcastle to widen gap to Arsenal in top four battle

Pedro, Willian strike as Chelsea beat Newcastle to widen gap to Arsenal in top four battle

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LONDON -- Willian scored his first Premier League goal since October to give Chelsea a hard-earned 2-1 win over Newcastle at Stamford Bridge .

Willian's goal widens the Blues' lead over Arsenal in the battle for fourth place to six points, and arrived after Ciaran Clark's header had cancelled out Pedro's early opener.

Postives

Chelsea avoided going three Premier League home games without scoring for the first time since 1993, and Willian rediscovering his goal touch will be welcome news for Maurizio Sarri. Most important is the result, however, which punishes Arsenal's loss against West Ham and puts pressure on Tottenham and Manchester United.

Negatives

Eden Hazard clearly doesn't want to play as a false nine, and Chelsea's attacking play with him drifting everywhere remains slow and stagnant for long spells. They also remain startlingly vulnerable defensively at times, giving the ball away in bad areas and failing to track runners.

Manager rating out of 10

7 -- Sarri's decision to start Willian and Pedro either side of Hazard was ultimately vindicated by both finding the net, even if Chelsea weren't very convincing between their two goals. Callum Hudson-Odoi also got some more minutes off the bench, but is it too little, too late?

Player ratings: (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK Kepa Arrizabalaga, 7 -- Could do nothing about Clark's header, directed right into his bottom corner, and did not have too many other saves to make. His calmness was valuable in smaller ways though, epitomised by one impressive catch under pressure as the visitors surged after the break.

DF Cesar Azpilicueta, 7 -- It was to his credit that Christian Atsu's best moments came when he drifted in from the Spaniard's flank, and he even got forward well to win a dangerous early free kick that yielded a good headed chance for David Luiz. Rarely caught the eye for better or worse, as is his style.

DF Antonio Rudiger, 6 -- Has a manic style to his movements around the pitch generally but was forced to scramble on several occasions here, partly due to his own sloppiness and partly due to that of his teammates. Did more right than wrong though, and always brings vital intensity to this Chelsea team.

DF David Luiz, 7 -- Restored to the team after Andreas Christensen impressed against Tottenham, he took just nine minutes to show the unique weapon he provides in this team, floating a brilliant 50-yard pass over the Newcastle defence for Pedro. Beaten in the air for Newcastle's equaliser, but overall he was a positive.

DF Marcos Alonso, 5 -- His lack of speed with and without the ball is a problem at both ends of the pitch, and he appears to have lost his early-season confidence. Put in one good low cross to set up a Pedro chance, but is a shadow of his normal attacking presence and still looks suspect defensively.

MF N'Golo Kante, 8 -- The best of Chelsea's midfielders, picking the right times to keep possession and the right times to drive deep into Newcastle territory. Some say his position is too advanced, but his ability to force mistakes in the attacking half created two of his team's most threatening moments after the break.

MF Jorginho, 5 -- As the on-pitch symbol of 'Sarriball', he is beginning to bear the brunt of Stamford Bridge's frustration with his team's obvious flaws. Many sideways or backwards passes were greeted by groans and even jeers, and he also lost possession a couple of times in dangerous areas.

MF Mateo Kovacic, 6 -- Sensible and tidy enough in possession and covered Alonso reasonably well on the left of Sarri's midfield three. That said, ever once came close to testing Martin Dubravka in the Newcastle goal and could not find any incisive passes either. Could have few complaints when Barkley replaced him just after the hour mark.

FW Pedro, 7 -- Chelsea's only consistent goal threat here, he was a thorn in Newcastle's side from the moment he clinically lobbed Dubravka in the ninth minute. His touch deserted him in the second half though, seeing one fierce low shot saved and another roll tamely into the goalkeeper's hands.

FW Eden Hazard, 7 -- Looked determined to play anywhere except up front in a tepid first half, providing further evidence that he does not want to be a false nine. Took matters into his own hands after the break though, turning and driving at defenders and creating Chelsea's second goal for Willian.

FW Willian, 7 -- Not a favourite of Chelsea supporters at the moment and one big miss in each half helped underline why he can be a frustrating figure. However, his curler in the 57th minute proved to be the winner and was both brilliant and decisive. The fact it was only his third Premier League goal of the season, however, highlights the wider problem.

Substitutes

MF Ross Barkley, 6 -- Seems to have lost the confidence to really express himself on the ball that he showed signs of earlier this season, but did nothing to create problems for his team either when he came on for Kovacic.

FW, Callum Hudson-Odoi, N/R -- Was this his final Chelsea appearance? Stamford Bridge certainly hopes not, with chants of "Hudson-Odoi, we want you to stay" ringing around the stadium during his lively 11-minute cameo.

FW Olivier Giroud, N/R -- Brought on to give Hazard a rest and Chelsea a proper focal point for the final few minutes.

LONDON -- Maurizio Sarri reiterated that Chelsea must find a replacement for Cesc Fabregas in the January transfer window after admitting that Jorginho was "in trouble" during Saturday's 2-1 win over Newcastle.

Willian's first Premier League goal since October gave Chelsea a vital three points in the top-four race after Ciaran Clark's header cancelled out an early opener from Pedro Rodriguez in a lively first half, but frustration gripped Stamford Bridge as the home side laboured for long spells.

Jorginho's uncharacteristically error-prone performance made him the subject of particular ire. And after the match, Sarri attributed his marquee summer signing's disappointing display to a lack of midfield cover in the wake of Fabregas completing a January move to Monaco.

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"Today Jorginho was in trouble and on the bench there wasn't a player for that position," Sarri said. "I need an option for Jorginho."

Asked when he expects a Fabregas replacement -- reportedly a straight choice between Zenit St Petersburg midfielder Leandro Paredes and Cagliari star Nicolo Barella -- to arrive, Sarri replied: "I have no idea.

"It's not too much [of a worry for me]. [If] the club is worried, I don't know. The club knows very well my opinion. I need the player there [in that position]. It depends on the club decision, I think. I cannot do anything more."

Willian's third Premier League goal of the season came at the end of a week that saw fresh speculation linking him with a move to Barcelona, though sources have told ESPN FC that Chelsea are reluctant to sell him in January amid concerns that it could damage Sarri's ability to deliver a top-four finish.

"You know very well that Willian for us is really a very important player, as I said [on Friday] in the press conference," Sarri added.

"In my opinion, Willian has to stay with us. He's really a very important player, like Pedro. [Hudson-Odoi] is becoming for us a really important player. With Eden [Hazard] as a striker, we need wingers. So we need Pedro. We need [Hudson-Odoi]. We need Willian of course. For us, he's fundamental."

The win moves Chelsea six points clear of fifth-placed Arsenal after the Gunners lost 1-0 to West Ham earlier on Saturday, but Sarri insisted that his team's performance against a struggling Newcastle side left him wanting more.

"I am really very happy with the result," Sarri said. "We started very well for 10 minutes. After the goal, I think we thought now it's easy, but it wasn't. We slept for 20, 25 minutes, so at the end of the first half, we were in trouble.

"We need to improve in the mental reaction. After our first goal, something happened. We stopped [playing] for 25 minutes. We need to improve. It was really very important to get three points. For now, it's enough."

BRIGHTON, England -- In any title-winning season there are games that end up being almost forgotten: staging posts along the road that offer essential nourishment but nothing in the way of vivid scenery.

Should Liverpool see the job through in May, this laborious win over an excellently drilled Brighton side will only merit a few seconds of the highlight reel. It will not matter one bit, because these may prove to be their most important three points of the entire campaign.

Make no mistake, there were question marks over Jurgen Klopp's side before this one; the smallest of signs that their narrow defeat at Manchester City had opened up wider wounds would have been seized upon. If that sounds harsh, it is just the way things work these days when you are in the throes of a title race with a margin for error that appears smaller than ever.

"From a maturity point of view, I would say it was the most mature of the season," Klopp said of a slow-burning affair that was decided three minutes after half-time by a Mohamed Salah penalty. At full-time Klopp allowed himself an understated fist pump, and it was a reaction in character with the previous 90 minutes. There was not a lot to warm the blood -- not even when Brighton, who had fulfilled one of Chris Hughton's primary objectives by still being in the game with 10 minutes to go, sent the cavalry up at the end. But there was a coolness, a shared purpose, a diligence to Liverpool that has been the hallmark of their current campaign as much as the full-throttle approach that characterised the previous two.

"We are not the Harlem Globetrotters," Klopp said. "We have to deliver a result, and that's difficult." It was a revealing statement, because it reiterated that Liverpool are absolutely content to be mean and grim-faced when it suits them. Last season they won this fixture 5-1, blowing Brighton away either side of half-time. That never looked on the cards this time but nor, really, did any kind of mishap once they were ahead. With six minutes to play Roberto Firmino could be seen tracking back 30 yards to dispossess Anthony Knockaert, thwarting a promising counter for the hosts. in the time that remained there were big defensive interventions from Fabinho and Virgil van Dijk, and those were the moments that satisfied Klopp as much as any.

"It was obviously a big challenge for everyone to stay calm and concentrated because each little situation can be a massive threat on the counter or whatever," he continued. "And not to make any fouls because Brighton are unbelievably strong on set pieces. That level of concentration is difficult to keep, but they did it."

It was a particular relief that Fabinho, whose increasing prominence in midfield had been a big factor in Liverpool's recent form, stayed firm at the back. He faced a gnarled, wily customer in Glenn Murray, and when he let the striker go in the 15th minute, watching in relief as the resulting header looped over, their shortage of centre-back bodies seemed at risk of being laid bare. Fabinho took an arm in the face from Murray shortly afterwards but would respond later with one of his own; after that rocky start he looked well attuned to the physical battle and excelled just before the hour, too, with a vital block from Pascal Gross's goal-bound shot.

Fabinho has a "defending brain", Klopp said, and it is testament to Liverpool that this can now be said of the entire side. They did not function as effectively going forward: Salah's first sight of goal had come only a minute before his winner, which came after Gross had clumsily halted his run into the box from the right. He missed a gilt-edged chance to wrap things up near the end, and Sadio Mane saw an effort deflected wide, too; Klopp said Liverpool's finishing was a bigger issue than their creativity but, in practice, their clear openings could comfortably be counted on one hand.

That might remain the case if future opponents follow the lead of Brighton, who were happy to sit in and avoid a repeat of their thrashing from 2017-18. "If you play an open and expansive game against them and go two or three down then generally there's no way back," Hughton said.

Perhaps a carefree, "heavy metal" Liverpool performance might have blown their resistance away far earlier, andd it may yet be, if the league leaders continue to find assignments like this slow going, that a more forceful approach is required to ensure the wins keep coming. A better balance might yet be struck to dispose of palpably weaker foes more comfortably. But this felt, for all its turgidness, like a return to business.

"If you fall from the horse, you can go back on it," Klopp said. Liverpool did that here, even if how they managed it becomes a footnote in history four months from now.

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