Chelsea halted a losing run here but, even in the knowledge that their leadership of this group is maintained, Antonio Conte has not been hoodwinked by this result. There had been moments when his side gasped at the ferocity of Roma’s muscular approach, and periods when they were left flailing desperately in pursuit of the ball. The head coach will shudder at the memory of another opponent, this time crammed with former Manchester City players rather than Pep Guardiola’s current crop, dominating the play here so confidently.
Conte has made clear the issues he feels are jeopardising his team’s progress this season. A cluttered schedule is stretching a squad he had hoped would be reinforced even more extensively over the summer, with this the second time during the autumn that Chelsea have faced seven games in 23 days. He has suggested the regular hamstring problems are a direct result of an unfamiliar slog. By the end of a bruising match David Luiz was nursing a calf complaint, Tiémoué Bakayoko had hurt his groin, Gary Cahill was sporting a bandage around his jaw and Conte had been riled by José Mourinho’s perceived criticisms from Lisbon.
It was that kind of chaotic evening. There was also an admission from Conte that he had erred in his tactics, the decision to push David Luiz into central midfield having surrendered the initiative to expansive and impressive opponents. “It’s right to take the responsibility because I tried, on the one hand, to protect my team and make us more solid,” Conte said. “We had three important players out injured – [N’Golo] Kanté, [Danny] Drinkwater and [Victor] Moses – and this situation gives us problems. It’s three, not seven, but it’s still an emergency situation for us. But on the other hand we lost totally our style of football. I didn’t like this. We were 2-0 up, but we were never in control of the game.”
This, of course, is a scenario all the English clubs in the Champions League face and the reality is everyone – from hierarchy to coaching staff – knew what awaited this term, but one suspects the Italian will fall back on that familiar gripe until his players somehow rekindle some of last season’s pizzazz. At present, this team are looking distinctly leggy. The evidence was there in César Azpilicueta’s performance, last season’s most consistent performer again helpless as an opponent barged past him to score. On Saturday it was Wilfried Zaha exploiting space between Davide Zappacosta and the Spaniard. Here it was Aleksandar Kolarov, five minutes from the break, who ran round the outside of the defenders to fire in a shot that flicked up off Andreas Christensen for the goal that kickstarted Roma’s recovery. The fact they had trailed by two goals eight minutes from the break always felt deceptive. “When you are 2-0 up at home, you must win the game,” said Eden Hazard.
It was the Belgian who would eventually check Roma’s ambition, guiding a header down and beyond Roma’s goalkeeper Alisson Becker to secure a point 15 minutes from time, with that late reply at least an indication of Chelsea’s strength of character. It would have been easy for them to wilt once Roma’s overall dominance had enabled them to overhaul the home side, Edin Dzeko’s excellence having put them briefly ahead.
The Bosnian has been prolific since leaving Manchester City and waited an hour before making an impact here. The volley he belted from Federico Fazio’s lofted pass over Christensen was a strike of brutal splendour. “A fantastic goal, one of the best of my life,” the striker said. He would head his team’s third beyond Thibaut Courtois six minutes later from Kolarov’s free-kick, and then leap above the substitute Antonio Rüdiger only to steer a close-range header wide of the post. Roma’s head coach Eusebio Di Francesco held his head in his hands at that miss, though there was still so much to admire in his team’s display.
Regardless, his players will be licking their lips at the prospect of facing Chel sea again on Halloween at the Stadio Olimpico. There had been pace to their passing and movement, and aggression in the midfield bite of Kevin Strootman, Maxime Gonalons and Radja Nainggolan.
Their harrying riled Chelsea’s players, not least David Luiz whose reaction was to tear helter-skelter around the pitch as if in search of retribution, regardless of the pain in his left calf. The Brazilian had made his own startling contribution early on, marauding inside and attempting to thread a slide-rule pass through to Álvaro Morata just inside the penalty area. Juan Jesus blocked that but the Brazilian continued his run on to the loose ball and, with the visitors slow to react, bent a delicious first-time shot beyond Becker and into the corner from 25 yards.
It was the first of the flurry of goals, with Hazard duly scoring his first in this competition since March 2015 after Fazio’s block on Morata’s attempt had resulted in the ball spiralling up and over Juan Jesus in the centre. Hazard lurked behind the centre-half, having peeled off cleverly and unnoticed into space, and eagerly tucked away the half-volley.
Yet there was never security in the lead, or even a hint of authority in Chelsea’s performance. Some of the uncertainty still lingered after those recent defeats by Manchester City and Crystal Palace, and the doubts will remain even after this riotous draw. At least Atlético Madrid’s draw in Baku has left the initiative in the section with these two teams. The slog goes on.