It was no exaggeration to describe it as a siege. Chelsea had led through Ben Chilwell’s lovely finish on the stroke of half-time but it was Brentford who asked all the questions – with increasing urgency – as a pulsating game entered its closing stages.
How did Thomas Frank’s team not find an equaliser to celebrate his third anniversary as the club’s manager? They absolutely deserved one. The answer lay somewhere between bad luck, poor finishing and the excellence of Édouard Mendy in the Chelsea goal, who simply refused to be beaten.
When Ivan Toney was denied by Mendy on 73 minutes, it was the prompt for a slow-burning game to ignite. Brentford pushed, loading numbers into the Chelsea box and throwing everything at them. The visitors gasped for breath. “It was pretty much hell on earth the last 20 minutes,” Chilwell said.
Bryan Mbeumo, played in by the substitute Marcus Forss – who made a difference – dragged a shot against the post, as he had done in the first half. And, thereafter, as Chelsea panicked, their famed defensive structure in tatters, with Thomas Tuchel admitting that it looked as though Brentford had an extra man, it was over to Mendy.
He made a one-on-one save to deny another substitute, Saman Ghoddos, before Brentford went close on the second phase, Christian Nørgaard working a shot towards goal only for Trevoh Chalobah to clear off the line.
Mendy’s best was still to come. He charged off his line to make himself big when Pontus Jansson threatened, the shot smacking him in the face and flying to safety, and at the end, when the outstanding Nørgaard finessed an acrobatic effort, Mendy threw up a hand to tip over.
“We’re gonna to score in a minute,” the home crowd chanted. It was gripping stuff, a demonstration of Brentford’s drive and belief. Chelsea had conceded only three goals in the Premier League all season and in many of their games they had given up barely any chances. Not here.
Yet Brentford could not score, they could not follow their home win over Arsenal and the high-intensity draw with Liverpool with another memorable result. Chelsea suffered and, thanks to Mendy, they survived.
It was a game when Romelu Lukaku struggled to make an impact – he touched the ball only 18 times before his substitution on 77 minutes – while, alongside him, Timo Werner looked as though he could have played all night and not scored. Both of them were too isolated, particularly as Chelsea dropped deeper and deeper towards the end, desperate to protect what they had.
And yet Chelsea squirmed to the result they wanted, one that saw them leapfrog back over Liverpool and to the top of the table. It was streaky. It was ugly. It made the points feel somehow sweeter.
Frank was proud. He had to be. He highlighted how Brentford had restricted the European champions to five shots – only one of which was on target. He talked about those five “100% chances” that went begging towards the end. How had his team been better than opponents with five Ballon d’Or nominations in their ranks? “Just crazy,” Frank said. But it did not erase the frustration.
“There should only be one winner in the game and that is us,” Frank said. “It’s so painful. It burns in your body. Mendy was absolutely world class. He has been crazy good for Chelsea.”
Chelsea controlled the majority of the first 70 minutes but without creating too much of clearcut note. The most interesting aspects of their performance were provided by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whom Tuchel used in front of a back three that featured Malang Sarr making his league debut. He emerged with credit.
Loftus-Cheek brings physicality but it is the finesse that draws the eye; the bursts past opponents, the quickness of his feet, particularly when he has men around him. There were times when he was almost mesmerising.
The game might have been shaped differently had Mbeumo’s shot on 22 minutes gone in rather than hit a post. Moments earlier, Toney had gone close with a header. Now, Ethan Pinnock rose to meet a Sergi Canós cross and, when Nørgaard headed back for Mbeumo, the chance was on. He went close but not close enough.
Chelsea flickered as an attacking force from that point until half-time. Lukaku turned home from a Werner cross only to be flagged offside; Mateo Kovacic’s deflected free-kick looped over and there were a couple of flashes from Werner when he ought to have done better. First he sidefooted high after a Lukaku lay-off and then he tried to pass to his strike partner when well-placed rather than shoot. The execution was poor.
The goal came when César Azpilicueta crossed, Lukaku tussled with Jansson and Chilwell cut across a first-time effort, sending the ball screaming past David Raya. The howls thereafter would belong to Brentford.