Chelsea are setting the early pace in the Premier League after winning all three of their opening encounters, with the impressive Eden Hazard having played an influential role in their success so far.
The Belgian was on song with more of his increasingly familiar heroics as the Blues secured a 2-0 home win over Newcastle on Saturday, while Fernando Torres is gradually improving as he looks to fill Didier Drogba's scoring boots.
Roberto Di Matteo tweaked his line-up to accommodate the absence of captain John Terry, who was missing with a neck injury, but David Luiz and Gary Cahill did a commendable job of containing the Newcastle attacking force of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse in central defence. After featuring in the victory over Reading on Wednesday night, Frank Lampard and Ramires were dropped to the bench in favour of Raul Meireles and Ryan Bertrand. Di Matteo's thinking with the latter was probably to give Ashley Cole more cover in containing the threat of Newcastle man Hatem Ben Arfa, playing out on the right.
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew made nine changes from the starting XI that drew Thursday night's Europa League qualifier at Atromitos. Captain Fabricio Coloccini recovered from a thigh problem to step back in at the heart of the Magpies' defence and had a tough task on his return subduing the threat of Torres with fellow centre-back Steven Taylor. Ba returned from injury to boost Newcastle's attack but they were missing the assured physical presence of Cheick Tiote in midfield and Vurnon Anita struggled to fill his shoes on his full Premier League debut.
Di Matteo stuck with his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation and it's not hard to see why given the results it's produced for the Blues so far this term. The winning formula delivered again, with rising star Hazard at the heart of the new-look Chelsea side. Hazard continued to pull the strings for the Blues, linking up well with Juan Mata once again as the pair continued to develop their interchanging play behind lone striker Torres. The presence of John Obi Mikel and Meireles, occupying the deep-lying role held by Lampard for the opening two games, in front of the back four allows Hazard and Mata to roam without restriction as the creative hub of the side. The Belgian's understanding with Torres is also beginning to blossom, with the pair combining brilliantly for the second goal. Bertrand was not so involved in the attacking side of things as he helped deal with the threat of Ben Arfa and Cole was also less of a threat going forward than usual down the left.
Newcastle looked less fluid in Pardew's 4-4-2 formation and Anita had trouble contributing the defensive support usually provided so effectively by Tiote. Ben Arfa looked restricted and at times redundant out on the right wing and was most dangerous when he abandoned his post to drift into midfield, creating several chances from a more central position. While Ben Arfa has similar characteristics to Hazard, the Frenchman saw much less of the ball to curb his threat. The Magpies were missing attacking input from full-backs Danny Simpson and David Santon in the first half, but the latter was better going forward after the break. Even so, service was lacking for Ba and Cisse, with chances thin on the ground, particularly in the opening 45 minutes.
Chelsea were content to sit back in the second half and most of their attacks came on the break, so it was no great surprise when Di Matteo chose to take off Mata and introduce Ramires with just over 20 minutes remaining, replacing flair with a more defensive edge as the hosts looked to preserve their two-goal lead. The only other change was to bring on the rested Lampard for Meireles with three minutes remaining, with Hazard having already shown he is capable of taking over penalty duties when the veteran midfielder is on the bench.
Pardew added a more attacking feel to his backline with the introduction of Ryan Taylor for Simpson in the 64th minute and he set up what was arguably Newcastle's best chance of the match, laying on a delightful ball for Papiss Cisse which the striker failed to convert with a poor header. Sylvain Marveaux also injected some fresh energy into the Magpies' attack when he came on for Santon with just over 15 minutes remaining but was unable to provide the crucial breakthrough. The visitors' third and final change saw James Perch replace Yohan Cabaye, who had looked like he could go off earlier when he picked up a knock on the stroke of half-time, but the midfielder couldn't make an impact.
Phil Dowd was given little choice but to point to the spot after Anita's naive challenge on Torres early on, which did not leave much room for argument. The official's later booking of the Spanish striker seemed harsh given he looked to have been genuinely caught by Coloccini, but the yellow appeared to be for dissent rather than diving after he showed his frustration with the decision. Despite that questionable call, Dowd's overall display prompted few complaints, and the referee kept his composure despite a less than friendly reception and the occasional taunt from the Stamford Bridge crowd.
Once again, Hazard was the player hogging the headlines for Chelsea after contributing another fine display. The Belgian is looking more assured with each game that passes and after opening his goalscoring account with a cool penalty, there is a feeling he has plenty more firepower to offer. The stats speak for themselves, with Hazard having been directly involved in five of the Blues' eight Premier League goals with one goal and four assists, winning penalties for the other two. His partnership with Torres looks promising and should the pair develop that understanding they could prove a devastating attacking force for the Blues.
Ben Arfa was Newcastle's brightest player but he did not look at home in Pardew's more rigid formation. His tendency to roam into midfield did showcase his best moments but left Simpson looking worryingly overworked and isolated out on the right. Ben Arfa would most likely excel in a role similar to that of Hazard, but with Tiote missing it was reasonable that Pardew wanted more bodies in midfield to combat Chelsea's free-flowing attack.
Chelsea have fired an early warning to their Premier League rivals that they could be a dominant force this season. Three wins from three have seen them return to the top of the early standings and with more new arrivals secured in forward Victor Moses and right-back Cesar Azpilicueta, they could have the strength in depth to challenge on all fronts. Di Matteo is making strides after leaning towards a more attacking, fluid brand of football in the Blues' opening games and with Hazard at the heart of the action, they have potential to go onwards and upwards.
The Magpies looked sluggish in the opening half and were slow out of the blocks, which could have been the hangover from their European trip in midweek, but they were much brighter in the second, with more chances being created. Ba enjoyed some good moments but Cisse had a very quiet afternoon, and the question still remains of whether the strike duo can click together and deliver in the same game. The defeat will have left the Magpies disappointed but with a win over Tottenham already under their belts, they will be keen to push on when they welcome Aston Villa to St James' Park next weekend.