A goal from defender Antonio Rudiger, his first in the Premier League, was enough for Chelsea to beat relegation-threatened Swansea and continue their recent revival as they bid to close the gap on leaders Manchester City, even if they missed a host of opportunities to win the game by a more convincing margin and took 55 minutes to find the breakthrough.
Perhaps that early frustration helps explain why Conte was so furious when Willian’s dangerous cross just before half-time was clearly deflected for a corner by Alfie Mawson — but referee Neil Swarbrick gave a goal kick. He ranted so loudly at fourth official Lee Mason that he was ordered from the dug-out by and had to watch the rest of the match from the East Stand. He may yet face further sanctions from the FA.
Certainly the Italian knew his team had to step up a gear after a slow start, not only to justify his decision to rotate his squad (including resting Eden Hazard) but also because this was a match Chelsea needed to win if they wanted to step up their title bid.
If ever the phrase ‘opportunity knocks’ was appropriate then a quick glance at Chelsea’s forthcoming fixture list should confirm this was it. The match start of a run of eight games against teams well below them in the Premier League table — a cast list of bottom-half contenders which includes Newcastle, West Ham, Huddersfield, Southampton, Everton, Brighton and Stoke — and that’s a big opportunity if the Blues want to defend their title and catch City.
With that in mind you might wonder why Conte took the gamble of resting star player Hazard against Swansea, leaving him on the bench alongside Cesar Azpilicueta after admitting in midweek his squad is not deep enough to risk burning out his top stars. In fact, Willian, Pedro, Rudiger and Cesc Fabregas all earned recalls as the Italian dramatically rotated his squad following a 1-1 draw at Liverpool last week.
Perhaps the knowledge that Swansea hadn’t won at Stamford Bridge since 1925 gave the Italian confidence to do that; but it also added to the pressure as his side wasted a string of first half chances to bury opponents who were extremely low on confidence.
Swansea began badly but grew as the game wore on. There were three penalty shouts alone in the first half, two against Mike van der Hoorn and one when Renato Sanches tangled with Marcos Alonso, but for all their possession Chelsea were unconvincing in the final third as Conte grew more restless on the sidelines.
Willian almost opened when his free-kick flew wide of the far post but there was a lack of clinical finishing as somehow Swansea clung on. Goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski had to be at his best to keep out a Pedro curler and an acrobatic Morata effort — as Swansea got a taste of what was to come. And, of course, in the end they buckled.
The breakthrough came after 55 minutes when N’Golo Kante’s shot deflected to defender Rudigerwho had a straightforward chance to head past Fabianski for 1-0. That was a bitter blow for the visitors who went into the match only a point off the bottom of the table.
Credit to Swansea that they remained in the game so long, growing in confidence and tenacity as it wore on, but Chelsea also wasted a string of opportunities with Morata, denied once by Fabianski and then again by his own ineptitude, the biggest culprit.
In a bid to avoid a nervous finale, Conte eventually signalled for Hazard to make an entrance after 78 minutes, with Kevin Drinkwater also called off the bench to prevent Swansea building up a head of steam; but even then there was a lack of spark as they hung on for victory.
Not convincing then, not a particularly happy night for the Chelsea manager after his first-half misdemeanours, but nevertheless a first chance taken in a run of fixtures which ought to see his team’s title chance advance.
Courtois 6; Rudiger 7, Cahill 6, Christensen 6; Zappacosta 6 (Moses 75; 6), Fabregas 7, Kante 7, Alonso 7; Willian 6 (Drinkwater 81; 6), Morata 6, Pedro 6 (Hazard 81; 6). Subs not used: Caballero, Bakayoko, Azpilicueta, Ampadu.
Fabianski 8; Naughton 6, van der Hoorn 6, Mawson 7, Olsson 6; Ki 6, Mesa 6 (McBurnie 65; 6), Carroll 6; Ayew 6 (Routledge 84; 5), Bony 5, Sanches 4 (Fer 46; 6). Subs not used: Nordfeldt, Dyer, Routledge, Clucas, Rangel.