This was an occasion billed as a grudge match between two famous old clubs and their respective managers. But on a night when Patrick Bamford proved a point against his former employers and Olivier Giroud scored yet again on his first Premier League start of the season, second-half goals from Kurt Zouma and Christian Pulisic were enough to take Frank Lampard’s side top of the table.
It was far from a vintage performance from Chelsea in front of 2,000 supporters, although after being frustrated by a stubborn Tottenham side last week Lampard will be relieved that his players showed resilience to battle back from behind and leapfrog their London rivals for a few hours at least.
This is a rivalry that can trace its genesis back more than 50 years and the infamous 1970 FA Cup final, although it had been eight years since they met in any competition – a 5-1 thrashing of Leeds in the League Cup.
The previous top-fight meeting in May 2004 ended up being the last Premier League match they played until their return this season and also heralded the start of a new era at Chelsea, with Claudio Ranieri being replaced a few weeks later by a certain José Mourinho.
Lampard and Bielsa’s own enmity is much more recent, of course, and their first meeting since the Championship play-off semi-final that followed their public disagreement also provided a fascinating subplot. The Leeds manager had insisted that the Spygate incident was in the past but he surely would have been delighted to see his side take the lead inside the first four minutes.
Chelsea had already gone close when Hakim Ziyech’s shot was saved by Illan Meslier and Giroud’s header from the resulting corner was inches away from creeping inside the post. But in a delightful move that began when Leeds won the ball on the edge of their box, a superb pass from the left boot of Kalvin Phillips allowed Bamford to nip in front of Zouma and apply the finish against his former club.
Robin Koch’s departure due to an injury was not ideal for the visitors, although they had Timo Werner to thank for maintaining their lead soon after. Giroud’s header from another corner looked destined for the far corner until the German mysteriously intervened and somehow contrived to hit the crossbar instead.
Bamford didn’t make a single appearance for Chelsea’s first team having joined from Nottingham Forest as a teenager and he came close to scoring his second goal after another free-flowing Leeds move, only for his shot to miss the target. Giroud has also had to wait for his opportunities in west London but underlined his cause further following his four goals against Sevilla in midweek with an immaculate header from Reece James’s cross after good work from Ziyech. That was the Moroccan’s last act, however, as he hobbled off to be replaced by Christian Pulisic.
Chelsea dominated possession for the rest of the half but couldn’t quite find a way through, with Bamford continuing to make a nuisance of himself against a defence that looked much shakier than in recent weeks.
Lampard’s decision to hand Kai Havertz his first start since the end of October was an opportunity for the 21-year-old to stake his claim for a regular spot after joining from Bayer Leverkusen.
Yet having been deployed on the right of Chelsea’s midfield three, he often found himself on the periphery of their attacks and wasted a good chance from a James free-kick at the start of the second half.
By contrast, Pulisic proved keen to make up for lost time after returning from a hamstring injury and, along with Giroud, looked the most likely source of a second goal for the hosts. At the other end, Raphinha could not take his chance after Édouard Mendy had saved his initial shot as Leeds continued to pose a danger.
But having somehow kept out two efforts from Werner and seen Ezgjan Alioski block another from point-blank range to deny Mason Mount, Meslier could do nothing about Zouma’s towering header from Mount’s pinpoint corner. Havertz was replaced by Mateo Kovacic to a smattering of applause and an embrace from his manager, who will hope there is more to come from the £62m signing. The impressive Mount was then the architect of another swift break that saw Giroud just fail to put the game beyond their opponents’ reach.
Werner also spurned a golden opportunity from Ben Chilwell’s brilliant cross that could have settled Lampard’s nerves before Giroud headed over again from a corner. Pulisic did eventually find a third goal after Werner’s unselfish cross and Chelsea’s players left the pitch to chants of “We are top of the league”. But for how long?