Chelsea's title defense is off to an unfathomably terrible start

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With a slightly dysfunctional offseason behind it and injuries to a few key players still on the mend, Chelsea could take solace in an opening day fixture list that seemed to offer up the simplest possible start to a title defense. On a sunny Saturday afternoon at Stamford Bridge, the Blues hosted Burnley, an overmatched team that won just once away from home last season. And at least momentarily, worries were forgotten. All was well.

Or so Chelsea thought.

All was well for 13 minutes, until Gary Cahill overzealously flew into a challenge with Burnley’s Steven Defour. Referee Craig Pawson reached for his left pocket and pulled out a red card.

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From there, things careened off the rails. The final wreckage was ugly: Nine men, a 3-2 defeat, and all kinds of comparisons to the club’s last title defense, which ended in a manager’s sacking and a 10th-place finish.

Shortly after Cahill’s red card, second-year boss Antonio Conte fumed on the touchline, shouting at the fourth official. Cesc Fabregas was booked for sarcastically clapping at the ref. The Stamford Bridge crowd howled.

Little did they know, it would get worse. Much worse.

Burnley took the lead through Sam Vokes, doubled it 15 minutes later, and extended it on Vokes’ second three minutes before halftime. Chelsea, 3-0 down, was booed off at halftime. Conte probably didn’t disagree with the fans’ sentiment.

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/david-luiz/" data-ylk="slk:David Luiz">David Luiz</a> and Chelsea couldn’t have had a worse start to the 2017-18 Premier League season. (Reuters)
David Luiz and Chelsea couldn’t have had a worse start to the 2017-18 Premier League season. (Reuters)

Alvaro Morata pulled a goal back in the second half. Even after a fully deserved second yellow for Fabregas, David Luiz made it 3-2 late on. Chelsea somehow dominated the game with nine men, and had 62 percent of the ball on the day, but ran out of time to complete the comeback. Burnley barely held on.

Last season’s runaway champions approached the game carelessly in the first half after Cahill’s red card, committing too many numbers forward especially after the first Burnley goal. The Clarets, despite playing 11-on-10, sat back and played on the break, catching Chelsea out on multiple occasions.

But the goals were more a result of negligent defending than any structural or strategic problems. Vokes snuck in front of Chelsea’s center backs for the first:

The second was a sweetly struck half-volley from left back Stephen Ward:

Luiz seemed frustrated by his team’s difficulties all afternoon, and was constantly moaning to the referee. At the final whistle, he sunk to the turf, his hands over his head, face up to the sky, eyes closed, exasperated.

But it was he whom Vokes slipped in front of for the opener, and it was he who seemed to be floating in no man’s land on the third:

With Cahill sent off, Conte subbed on youngster Andreas Christensen for his Chelsea debut. But the back three of Luiz, Christensen and fellow debutant Anthony Rudiger received little protection from midfielders not named N’Golo Kante, and had a turbulent afternoon.

The second half was heated. It was frantic. It was chaotic. Anger boiled on the Chelsea bench and in the stands. More boos rung out at the final whistle.

After a summer that led Conte to voice his frustrations over the club’s transfer market dealings, the season could not be off to a more trying start. And with Cahill and Fabregas now suspended for next Sunday’s clash with Tottenham, things could go from bad to worse.

Conte explicitly said last month that he hoped to avoid a “Mourinho season” — a reference to 2015-16, when the then-defending champs were plagued by burnout and reported player mutiny. One game isn’t enough to draw that drastic of conclusions. But there are now more than a few concerning signs.

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