Perez double condemns woeful Chelsea to Europa League
In what is widely expected to be Chelsea manager Antonio Conte’s final league game in charge, Ayoze Perez scored twice after Dwight Gayle’s opener, and the below-par Blues had to settle for finishing fifth.
That condemns them to a place in the less prestigious Europa League next season.
Victory at St James’ Park allied to a final-day defeat for Liverpool would have seen Chelsea snatch fourth, and while they failed in their task, it was rendered academic as Jurgen Klopp’s Champions League finalists ran out comfortable winners against Brighton.
Conte’s side still have the incentive of silverware to play for when they face Manchester United in the FA Cup final next Saturday.
But they go into that game with a continuing question mark over their Italian coach following their failure to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition, their points tally 23 less than in their title-winning season 12 months ago.
This could also have been a final game in charge for Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez, with the Spaniard’s future in doubt pending key talks with the club’s owner Mike Ashley in the next week.
If this was to be farewell for the former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid head coach, his players gave him a rousing send-off, as Perez struck twice after the break to add to Gayle’s first-half opener to confirm an impressive 10th-place finish in their first season back in the top flight.
Chelsea, who made eight changes from the side held 1-1 at Stamford Bridge by lowly Huddersfield Town in midweek, looked ill-at-ease from the first whistle.
They were fortunate to be just a single goal down at the interval as the hosts produced some of their finest football of the campaign.
Only a stand-out display from Thibaut Courtois prevented his side from being blown away as the Chelsea goalkeeper produced stunning saves to block long-distance efforts from Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diame.
The Belgian international prevented N’Golo Kante from inadvertently deflecting Matt Ritchie’s cross into his own net, but was unable to stop Gayle giving his side a deserved 23rd-minute lead.
From Ritchie’s cross, Courtois blocked Jacob Murphy’s looping close-range effort, only to be beaten by Gayle’s headed follow-up, the forward’s sixth goal of the season.
Shelvey should have doubled the advantage when firing badly wide from the edge of the area, Perez then dragging a shot wide from a centre by Gayle, who came close to claiming a second when Courtois beat out his fierce low shot as the visitors somehow held on.
With Conte cutting a largely disconsolate figure on the sidelines, it took his side more than 50 minutes to muster a threat of note, keeper Martin Dubravka expertly tipping over Olivier Giroud’s looping effort from Ross Barkley’s cross.
It proved to be a rare threat, and they were soon further in arrears as Perez, lurking in the six-yard box, touched home Shelvey’s shot for the second.
Dubravka produced an improbable save with his feet to deny Barkley before Perez tapped home Florian Lejeune’s inviting 63rd-minute knock-down to leave Chelsea in tatters.
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