Antonio Conte has grown used of late to knocking back suggestions the Premier League title is already all but Chelsea’s, though he will do well to maintain that facade of incredulity for much longer.
His side’s advantage gapes at 11 points after this victory, a win chiselled out against a much improved Swansea City. If the leaders crane their necks, squinting back over their shoulders, they might just make out the chasing pack massing on the horizon, but their threat is distant.
This was a 12th consecutive home success, equalling a club record, with Conte having triumphed in all but one of his matches in this arena since taking charge last summer. His delighted post-match routine, gripping triumphant players in bear hugs out on the pitch, has become the norm. All his key performers, from the irrepressible N’Golo Kanté to David Luiz, Eden Hazard to Diego Costa, continue to deliver. Pedro Rodríguez is prolific, and even those considered back-ups are proving influential.
Cesc Fàbregas was offered a relatively rare start but still revelled, scoring on his 300th Premier League appearance and providing a passable impression of Frank Lampard with his threatening runs from deep. It was fitting the club’s leading scorer was present as a guest to witness this display.
Given how efficiently every facet of this team is functioning, it is hard to imagine Chelsea stumbling over the last three months. Their distant challengers have been left pinning all their hopes on a collapse that would now need to be worse than that blip in the autumn and those defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, which had famously sparked the change in system, resolve and fortune. It would take more than a stumble. Chelsea would have to collapse entirely to be denied a second title in three seasons. Wins like this, in games that are tight for periods but end up appearing comfortable, give the impression this pursuit of silverware has long since become something of a procession.
Swansea could cling to the equaliser they plundered in stoppage time at the end of the first half, courtesy of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s wonderfully arced free-kick from the centre-circle and Fernando Llorente’s emphatic header beyond Thibaut Courtois.
Paul Clement could also point to the non-award of a penalty while the contest was still level early in the second half, Sigurdsson flicking the ball up on to César Azpilicueta’s hand with the referee, Neil Swarbrick, apparently enjoying a fine view of the incident.
But even the Swansea manager admitted those were isolated incidents, provoking pangs of anxiety amid waves of Chelsea optimism. “On reflection they’ve had a lot more chances, and a lot more of the ball, so probably deserved the victory,” said the former Chelsea No2. “They’ve got a lot of great players. We had to defend really, really well for 90 minutes-plus, and we couldn’t quite do that.”
Chelsea did not allow them to. They might have scored after 57 seconds through Pedro, struck the woodwork through Fàbregas, and forced Lukasz Fabianski to block two fine efforts, both from the former Arsenal midfielder. Kanté’s energy and blur of interceptions gave the hosts a relentless momentum, with Swansea pinned back for long periods. As resolute as they were, their game of containment always appeared stretched.
In the end they were always likely to crack and the goals pilfered by Pedro, whose shot squirmed disappointingly through Fabianski’s grasp, and Diego Costa gave the scoreline a more realistic feel. The striker’s volley was born of Hazard’s trickery and delivery down the flank, teasing space from Kyle Naughton. There was to be no recovery from that.
Swansea need not be too dismayed in defeat, for all that some of those beneath them in the table have started to flicker back into life. Their crucial run of games is still to come, with Burnley, Hull, Bournemouth and Middlesbrough their next four opponents.
“You never want to lose a game, but the performance doesn’t damage our confidence,” Clement said. The fact he has secured as many points – 12 – from his seven games in charge as Swansea managed in their first 19 games is a source of confidence, and better teams than theirs will be sunk at Stamford Bridge.
It is the depth of Chelsea’s options which must deflate opponents. Fàbregas has flitted in and out of the side, swapping opportunities with Nemanja Matic, but dominated this occasion with all the authority of old.
It had been his goal which set the hosts en route to their win, Tom Carroll’s mistake seized on by Hazard who eventually forced the ball wide for Pedro. He squared into the muddle of bodies loitering near the penalty spot, with Fàbregas taking one touch before calmly stabbing the ball across Fabianski with his second.
His class would tell with Chelsea’s progress serene.
gheventplus.com | Credit:theguardian.com