The Blues close the gap on their rivals, as they prepare for a big week focusing on their final chances at winning silverware
Willian has emerged from the shadows as a Chelsea protagonist once again, with his wonderful form renewing Chelsea’s hopes of saving their season.
The winger so often plays second fiddle to Eden Hazard but the Brazilian has become the Blues’ star man in recent weeks, with his opener in Saturday’s 2-1 Premier League victory over Crystal Palace making it five goals in his last five games.
In fact, Willian’s 25th-minute strike was his 13th of the season, his best ever return in a Chelsea shirt, and he is now the club’s second top scorer this season, after Hazard (15).
Willian is helping his team-mates, too, with seven assists to his name already. In other words, a player who has so often been the victim of rotation is now impossible to leave out.
Indeed, he and Hazard now hold the key to Chelsea’s bid to break back into the top four before the season’s end. Willian did his part on Saturday as the Blues closed to within two points of Tottenham, who play on Sunday, and just four of Liverpool, who were beaten by Manchester United earlier in the day.
Willian’s fine form could not be better timed in terms of Chelsea’s hopes of winning some silverware either, with Antonio Conte’s men set to travel to Barcelona on Wednesday for the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie before then taking on Leicester in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
With Pedro struggling so badly, and Alvaro Morata presently out of favour up front, Willian has also provided Hazard with the kind of partner he needs to work his magic in and around the box.
It isn’t just Willian’s goal threat but his stunning ability to counter-attack which makes him so dangerous. He was involved in a blistering break that very nearly led to a goal in the 50th minute, while he showcased his terrific dribbling skills by leaving three defenders in his wake shortly before the hour.
His set-pieces were also excellent and his varied threat was just too much for Roy Hodgson’s side to handle at Stamford Bridge.
Willian lost his place in the Chelsea starting line-up last season as he understandably struggled to come to terms with the the death of his mother in October 2016. Pedro came in to the side when the Brazil international took compassionate leave and took his chance to impress Conte.
However, after a prolonged battle to reclaim his starting berth, Willian is now back to his best. Jeffrey Schlupp and Patrick van Aanholt couldn’t handle him at all, particularly with Davide Zappacosta justifying his selection down the same flank by supporting Willian to excellent effect.
Chelsea’s victory was by no means comprehensive, sealed as it was by Martin Kelly’s own goal, but closing the gap to the top four was a timely boost ahead of an arduous assignment in Catalunya.
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However, Conte & Co. will take great encouragement from a first-leg performance against Barcelona that was wholly positive.
Chelsea certainly shouldn’t fear the Catalan giants. Ernesto Valverde may have Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi but Conte has Hazard and a resurgent Willian in arguably the form of his life.
In August, all the talk was about Morata and how many goals he would score for Chelsea. Right now, it is Willian who Barcelona will be most worried about stopping.