Antonio Conte was made to feel the impact of a real game by the League One new boys Bristol Rovers in an encounter with his makeshift Chelsea side
A double from Michy Batshuayi and a simple finish from Victor Moses seemed perfect for Chelsea to win the game in the first half. But a towering header from Peter Hartley brought the deficit back to two at half‑time and, when Rovers converted a penalty early in the second half, the pressure was thrown back on Chelsea. While his side held on to the win, Conte will now be asking questions about which of his irregulars will be up to the task of meeting the club’s ambitions this season.
“It’s a pity,” the Italian said after the match, “because we were dominating this game and then we suffer. We created a lot of chances in this first half to score many goals but I don’t like when you concede two goals in this situation with a free-kick and with a penalty. We need to understand that when you have the opportunity to kill the game you must take it.”
Conte made six changes from the team that started the victory against Watford last weekend with Cesc Fàbregas returning to the starting line-up after his weekend assist and the summer signing Batshuayi earning his first start since his summer move from Marseille. There were also call-ups for the academy graduates Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ola Aina, with the left‑back making his full senior debut. The Rovers manager, Darrell Clarke, meanwhile, made only one change from the draw at Southend, with the winger Billy Bodin replacing James Clarke.
Conte, as is his wont, was permanently agitated from the first whistle, constantly gesticulating and bellowing instructions even though the noise from a lively Stamford Bridge crowd, attracted by reduced tickets prices for this match, made it unlikely anyone would hear him.
Batshuayi had already missed one good chance by the time he opened the scoring in the 29th minute. With Rovers regularly camped in their own box it had seemed only a matter of time before Chelsea pushed enough numbers on to make a difference. In the end it was Nemanja Matic who cut through, running past the right-back Daniel Leadbitter and cutting the ball straight back on to Batshuayi’s left foot for the Belgian to drive the ball into the roof of the net.
One became two only two minutes later. This time it was Pedro toasting Leadbitter and, though his cross missed everyone in the six-yard box, César Azpilicueta was able to stretch and get a toe on it at the far post to turn it back across. This time Moses was ready and waiting and able to apply the finish.
Just when it seemed as if Conte would have nothing more to point about, Rovers got themselves back in the game. A foul on the Chelsea left gave Chris Lines a decent free-kick opportunity. Rovers’ own youth team product swung in a beautiful delivery and the left-back Hartley rose John Terry-like to power home. Three minutes later Lines was at it again but the promising young forward Ellis Harrison could only head off target.
Chelsea restored their two-goal lead soon enough. Fàbregas started this move, his through-ball finding Loftus-Cheek in the box. The 20-year-old spun beautifully to elude his marker and cut the ball back once again, and Batshuayi was ready to score his second of the game from six yards.
Despite being in the ascendant as the whistle blew, Clarke opted to shake things up at half-time. His double substitution brought last season’s top scorer Matty Taylor off the bench and the switch immediately paid dividends. Trapping a long pass on his chest in the 48th minute, he pivoted and released the midfielder Stuart Sinclair past Chelsea’s high defensive line. Pedro was the man tracking back and a clumsy shove in the box drew a penalty from Keith Stroud. Harrison stepped up and coolly tucked the ball away.
Suddenly it was all Rovers. Harrison saw a piledriver go narrowly over from 18 yards and, shortly afterwards, Jermaine Easter forced a sprawling save from Asmir Begovic. Chelsea all of a sudden began to look shaky, with the energy and control visibly dropping from the home side. However, with Conte on the touchline, this situation was never going to be left to drag. First he brought on Eden Hazard, then Terry and alongside the more experienced heads such as the dominant Branislav Ivanovic, they kept a lid on any pressure. Batshuayi even had a chance to seal a hat-trick in added time but his rebound finish was adjudged to have been offside.
Clarke, who has brought Rovers from non-league to League One in two seasons was pleased with his side’s efforts. “It was a compliment that Chelsea played a strong side,” he said. “We rode our luck a lot but the character of the lads showed, they had a right good go. No bones about it, though, Chelsea deserved to win the game.”