‘Underdog’ Chelsea seek to silence doubters as Special One awaits

Chelsea 3 Bournemouth 1: Antonio Conte believes his team were title underdogs at the start of the season, damaged by a divisive and explosive year under Jose Mourinho in which they finished 10th and their manager was sacked, but it is pretty clear now that Chelsea will face the Special One at Old Trafford next weekend as champions-elect.

‘Underdog’ Chelsea seek to silence doubters as Special One awaits

Saturday’s victory, highly professional and surprisingly nerveless despite the extra pressure of watching Spurs win 4-0 earlier in the day, underlined just how far Chelsea have come since Conte arrived with a brief to reunite and reinvigorate a squad still feeling the scars of a highly unpleasant episode in the club’s history.

Chelsea go to Old Trafford on Saturday seven points clear in the Premier League, and with only seven games to go it’s almost impossible to envisage them failing to finish the campaign as champions.

For Conte that would be a huge achievement, and his team’s progress was highlighted again on Saturday by the performance of Eden Hazard, who scored his 17th goal of a brilliant season. This is the player, remember, who was so poor last year that he arrived in April 2016 without a single league goal to his name.

If – and perhaps we should say ‘when’ – Chelsea are crowned champions, the Italian may well reflect that the trophy is the most satisfying and impressive of his coaching career so far, even if modesty prevents him admitting it.

“I don’t want to say that,” he said. “I think it’s better to finish the season and see what position we are in before talking. Yes you can have a good season – but to become a great season and to write history you must win the title.

“When you start the season as an underdog it’s greater if you are able to do this. At the start of the season nobody thought Chelsea could fight for the title. But we found the right motivation together and now we stay there at the top of the league and we want to change the opinion of people.”

There can be few people, even those at Chelsea’s biggest rivals, who have not been persuaded by now; but victory at Bournemouth was another stepping stone as an Adam Smith own goal, Hazard’s excellent finish on the break and a stunning free-kick from Marcos Alonso secured three more points.

There was a moment, briefly, at the end of the first half when the Cherries, buoyed by a goal from Joshua King, looked as though they could create a wobble, but the way Conte’s men controlled the second period was impressive and leaves them in confident mood ahead of a difficult trip to Old Trafford on Sunday, 24 hours after Spurs face Bournemouth.

“If you compare these two games, I think that it’s easier for Tottenham to take points in their home stadium,” admitted Conte. “I think Manchester United for sure will have good motivation because they are playing against Chelsea. Every team wants to beat us.

“It’s important now in every game to try and take three points, including at Old Trafford. We know this game will be very tough but we are in good form and the players have the right confidence.”

If Spurs need a ray of hope it comes in the fiery nature of Chelsea-United games and in Mourinho’s motivation to put one over his former club having lost twice already to Conte this season.

The onus, Conte says, will be on Chelsea to remain calm: “For us it’s always important to control our emotion because we are playing and fighting to win the title. For sure this game will be a tough game. But we are ready to play. I think we are showing in all the season great character, great desire, great will to fight for the title. We need this to continue.”

BOURNEMOUTH:

Boruc 7, A Smith 6, S Cook 7, Francis 6, Daniels 6, Fraser 7 (Gradel 84: 6), Arter 6, Wilshere 6, Pugh 5 (Ibe 71), King 8, Afobe 7 (Mousset 77; 6).

Subs not used:

Allop, Cargill, B Smith, L Cook

CHELSEA:

Courtois 6, Azpilicueta 7, David Luiz 7, Cahill 6; Moses 8 (Zouma 90), Kante 7, Matic 7, Alonso 8; Pedro 7 (Willian 87), Diego Costa 6, Hazard 8 (Fabregas 84; 6).

Subs not used:

Begovic, Terry, Chalobah, Batshuayi

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