There were no frills, few spills, just three points safely secured. The Special One would have approved.
On a bitter Teesside evening, his side weathered the early Middlesbrough storm, before slowly, surely sucking the life out of Aitor Karanka’s outclassed troops.
Diego Costa’s 10th goal of the season was enough to return them to the summit courtesy of a sixth consecutive win as they sealed a victory far more comfortable than the scoreline suggests, underlining their title credentials by posting a sixth clean sheet in a row. Only the woodwork prevented a more handsome margin, as Pedro hit the bar midway through the second half, when the midfielder met Costa’s knockdown from a David Luiz cross.
Karanka’s shadow-chasing side retained hope while their deficit remained at a single goal, but the gulf in class between the sides was clear as the Blues sealed a seventh successive victory in all competitions against the Teessiders.
Asked if his side were title favourites, Conte admitted the scars of early season defeat to Arsenal and Liverpool are too fresh to allow Chelsea to be carried away. “Only a month and a half ago you could see that with those two defeats, we weren’t among the favourites to be for fighting for the title. At this stage, it’s very difficult to change completely that opinion, we are working very well but if you ask what’s my target, I’d say I want to wait until the end of the first part of the season and then reassess.”
Costa rewarded Chelsea’s dominance, putting the visitors, who were unchanged for a fifth consecutive league game, ahead four minutes before the end of the first half.
Eden Hazard’s in-swinging corner looped into the air as Calum Chambers and Gaston Ramirez challenged Marcos Alonso at the near post. and Costa reacted first to volley the loose ball home from inside the six yard box to reach double figures for the season.
“For me, Diego is one of the best forwards in the world,” Conte added. “He’s our point of reference. In the past, the talk might have been about his behaviour, the way he reacts, but he’s showing his patience in the right way, helping the team both when we’ve got the ball, and when we haven’t.”
Victor Valdes was partially at fault for failing to come off his line as his side fell behind, his indecision in stark contrast to earlier in the half when the Boro goalkeeper produced a stunning fingertip save to deflect a first-time Pedro shot over the bar after Hazard and Victor Moses had carved the hosts open.
It was one of few clearcut chances before the interval as Boro were largely successful in their attempts to negate the threat of Conte’s side.
For their part Boro posed a minimal attacking threat, Alvaro Negredo wasting their two main openings. Ramirez fired over after Negredo’s dummy created space on the edge of the box for the Uruguayan but it was a rare threat as Karanka’s side were forced to concentrate on how to stifle their opposition, who enjoyed more than 70% possession in the second 45 minutes.
Middlesbrough had forced draws against both Arsenal and Manchester City this season, but after falling behind they rarely looked like troubling a three-man Chelsea backline that last conceded a league goal on September 24 — almost 10 hours’ football — for their best defensive run for six years, one cemented late out when Thibaut Courtois beat out a powerful Negredo volley.
The majority of chances arrived at the other end, and Alonso almost doubled the advantage within seconds of the re-start, the Spaniard forcing a fine low save from Valdes. Chelsea closed out their latest victory in a no-nonsense style reminiscent of their stand-out displays under Mourinho.
After a first defeat in four games left his side a point above the drop zone, Karanka admitted: “We’ve been punished for one mistake.”
Valdes 6; Barragan 5, Chambers 6, Gibson 6, Da Silva 5 (Downing 71, 6); Clayton 6 (Fischer 73, 5); Traore 5, Forshaw 6 (Leadbitter 89, 5), De Roon 5, Ramirez 4; Negredo 4. . Not used: Guzan, Espinosa, Nsue, Rhodes..
Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 6, Luiz 6, Cahill 7; Moses 5 (Ivanovic 89, 5), Kante 7, Matic 6, Alonso 7; Pedro 7 (Chalobah 80), Costa 7, Hazard 7 (Oscar 90, 5). Not used: Begovic, Terry, Fabregas, Batshuayi.