Conte's worst nightmare as Cahill, Fabregas see red in Chelsea defeat
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts on Chelsea 2-3 Burnley at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon:
1. Utter nightmare for Antonio Conte
May feels like a century ago. The overriding narrative of Chelsea's summer had been one of frustration and disappointment, but no one could have foreseen this. A first opening day defeat since 1998, a new club captain sent off after just 14 minutes and a Premier League title defence that already looks destined to endure serious difficulties in these opening weeks.
Burnley at home was regarded as the ideal remedy to Conte's problems, one of the few bankable wins in a fixture list that pits the Blues against Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal and Manchester City before October. From the moment Gary Cahill overran his dribble and caught Steven Defour studs up on the ankle in the 14th minute, it became clear the afternoon would follow a very different script.
Conte feared Chelsea were less than ready for this title defence, admitting on Friday he agreed with those who did not list his team among the favourites to win the Premier League. The injury luck that afforded him the most settled XI in the division last season abandoned the Blues weeks ago and their lack of squad depth was achingly apparent against Burnley.
Academy youngster Jeremie Boga was handed his Premier League debut in place of the injured Pedro, and the average age of Chelsea's six outfield substitutes was just under 21. Boga, an exciting talent, had little time to make any sort of impact before becoming the unfortunate collateral damage of Cahill's early red, sacrificed for Andreas Christensen in the 18th minute.
Shortly afterward, the Burnley deluge began. Sam Vokes guided a Matt Lowton cross from the right inside Thibaut Courtois' far post before Stephen Ward gutted the champions with a brilliant strike, chesting down Jack Cork's pass and volleying into the far corner. By the time Vokes powered in a header from Defour's delivery on the stroke of the interval, many Chelsea fans had left their seats in search of strong half-time refreshments.
Alvaro Morata's introduction and fine header in the second half prompted the loudest cheer of all at Stamford Bridge, but proved no more than a gilded consolation prize on an otherwise utterly wretched afternoon. The nightmare was complete when Cesc Fabregas was shown a second yellow card in the 81st minute, though David Luiz's volley provided some late drama.
Tottenham at Wembley is Chelsea's next assignment, and they must now face their most hated rivals without Cahill and Fabregas, as well as Eden Hazard, Tiemoue Bakayoko and the exiled Diego Costa. Only the brave or the foolish would call them Premier League title favourites.
2. More signings can't come soon enough
The strange thing about the negativity surrounding Chelsea's transfer window is that the signings they have managed to secure are well-regarded. The performances of Antonio Rudiger, Christensen and Morata against Burnley backed up the notion that quantity, rather than quality, is their most urgent need in what remains of August.
Starting on the right of a back three, Rudiger saw plenty of the ball in the early minutes as Burnley sat deep, driving forward whenever the opportunity arose and picking his passes sensibly. Cahill's dismissal saw him move to the left of a back three, where he continued to be an powerful and confident presence, on occasion even barking orders at his floundering teammates.
Christensen made his entrance in more unexpected circumstances, replacing Boga in the tactical reshuffle that followed Cahill's red. Despite some positional mistakes on the right of Conte's back three, there was plenty in his physicality and technical quality -- not least a run and shot that was only denied by an offside call in the second half -- to suggest he could be that rarest of beasts: a talented academy graduate who actually sticks in the first team.
And then we come to Morata. No man at Chelsea goes into this season under more pressure, both as the club's most expensive signing and the striker expected to replace last season's top scorer.
But there was no sign on the pitch of Morata's burden when he came on just before the hour mark. A smart and enthusiastic runner, the Spaniard provided an immediate upgrade on the anonymous Michy Batshuayi and even marked his thankless cameo with an impressive goal, ghosting in at the back post to nod in Willian's inviting cross, before flicking on for Luiz to score.
Chelsea are desperately short of bodies and the situation looks set to get worse before it improves. Conte can, though, take some small solace in the fact that the newest faces in his squad are ready to contribute right away.
3. Burnley's brilliant day hints at promise
Sean Dyche cut almost as pessimistic a figure as Conte in the buildup to this season. "There's still a level this club operates to," he told journalists after watching last season's top scorer, Andre Gray, follow star defender Michael Keane out of the door. "It makes it tough at times, but it's the reality."
But appearances can be deceiving. Burnley may not be a sustainable Premier League club in the long term, but Dyche is a highly competent top-flight coach, more motivated than most by the desire to overcome the odds and confound his critics. His teams are diligent, organised and don't generally beat themselves.
At Stamford Bridge they exploited Chelsea's early red card brilliantly, intelligently picking the champions apart with inviting crosses. Vokes was a startlingly effective presence in the penalty area and Ward provided the game's best moment of quality with a stunning strike to double Burnley's lead.
Only in the final 20 minutes, when Morata had netted, did Dyche's men look in danger of losing their nerve. Stamford Bridge became a cauldron of noise, roaring Chelsea's nine men forward and providing the deafening soundtrack to an unlikely siege.
But they held out, fully earning a result that sees them match their tally of Premier League away wins in the whole of last season. As long as Burnley can find a reliable trickle of goals, there will be at least three worse teams in the top flight.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.