When West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini revealed on Sunday morning that Marko Arnautovic had tried but failed to be fit for their clash with Chelsea, Irons fans may have been fearing the worst considering the Blues had maximum points from their first five games at that point.
Things may not have been helped when the teamsheets were released an hour before kick-off, as it was revealed that Pablo Zabaleta would start at right-back ahead of summer signing Ryan Fredericks, and come up against Chelsea’s main man Eden Hazard.
However, the 33-year-old and his teammates produced a brilliant defensive display and Zabaleta kept the Belgian quiet, which as Cardiff proved the week before is no mean feet.
What stood out about the Argentine defender’s performance the most was his recognition of his limitations that meant sometimes he got tight to Hazard, and sometimes he tucked in to maintain the Hammers’ solid back four, while also fouling him when it was necessary.
Chelsea had almost 72 per cent possession during the clash, but couldn’t break down the West Ham defence over the 90 minutes. The Blues had travelled to Greece for the Europa League on the Thursday and may have argued that their players were tired, but this was a fresh Hazard who didn’t even make the trip for the win over PAOK and he was still unable to influence the game up against Zabaleta.
The former Manchester City man has had a fantastic career in England, winning two Premier League titles, one FA Cup and two League Cups. He joined West Ham in the summer of 2017 and used all of his experience up against Hazard on Sunday.
Zabaleta made a staggering eight clearances when West Ham were under pressure and three interceptions. He also blocked one shot and made a couple of forays forward without risking the clean sheet that was within reach at the other end of the pitch.
So far this season, Pellegrini has rotated Fredericks and Zabaleta but his selection for the Chelsea tie was clearly justified as the 58-cap international neutralised the Blues’ biggest threat brilliantly.