If there was any tension remaining in the title race — and let’s be honest there wasn’t a lot — Chelsea’s comfortable victory over Middlesbrough has seen it totally evaporate and opened up an opportunity for Antonio Conte’s side to be crowned champions at West Brom on Friday before rivals Tottenham even kick a ball again.
Chelsea 3 Costa 23, Alonso 34, Matic 65 Middlesbrough 0
Goals from Diego Costa, Marcos Alonso, and Nemanja Matic, in a match which was dominated from midfield by the excellent Cesc Fabregas, gave Chelsea a 3-0 victory which leaves them seven points clear at the top of the table with only three games to play.
For Spurs fans it must have been depressing viewing because from first minute to last the result was never in doubt, such was the total control the home side had over their opponents, whose relegation from the Premier League was confirmed at the final whistle.
Even in north London, however, there must have been few people who truly believed that Chelsea would collapse sufficiently to throw away a lead they have enjoyed almost all season, ever since Conte reacted to a defeat at Arsenal last September by changing to a 3-4-3 formation.
They were imperious again here. It took only one minute for Chelsea to have a meaningful shot on goal, Alonso volleying a Fabregas cross-field pass against the bar with Brad Guzan getting a crucial touch to keep it out.
That was a relief for Boro but you suspected even then it would be only a temporary reprieve.
Fabregas, who was conducting the game from midfield, missed a good chance after 17 minutes and set up a string of opportunities with raking long balls, including one which Costa really should have finished at the far post.
Eventually the tactic worked, however, when Fabregas’ cute diagonal ball over the top of the Boro defence found Costa unmarked only six yards out, and the striker simply slipped the ball through Guzan’s legs to give Chelsea the lead.
For Costa it was his 21st goal of a productive campaign and for Fabregas his 10th assist, making him the first player in Premier League history to provide 10 assists in six separate seasons.
By the 34th minute it was 2-0, yet another cross-field ball finding Alonso at the far post to drill home — only this time it was Cesar Azpilicueta learning from the master and providing the assist.
The home side continued to pepper the goal of a Middlesbrough side who were simply not in Chelsea’s league (and now know they won’t be next season).
So after Pedro hit the bar early in the second half, it was no surprise when Matic drilled home a third, set up by a beautiful Fabregas flick, which sealed Middlesbrough’s fate — and almost certainly Tottenham’s too.
All this was achieved without player of the season N’Golo Kante who suffered a muscle injury in training and was not considered for selection; but on this form, and with Matic ably filling in, Chelsea didn’t need him and were even able to bring on veteran John Terry for a late cameo to the delight of the home crowd.
It’s a sign of just how relaxed the leaders were about this fixture, and about the title run-in, that manager Conte insisted pre-match he didn’t even tune in for Tottenham’s televised defeat at West Ham last Friday, a result which left the leaders in total control of the season finale even before they kicked off last night.
“I didn’t watch” he said. “My wife and daughter were here and I had dinner.”
The way Chelsea are playing at the moment Conte could probably arrange a dinner date for Friday night while his team play at the Hawthorns and still get his hands on the trophy; and if anything does go wrong in the Midlands, there are comfortable home games against out-of-form Watford and relegated Sunderland yet to come.
Relax, everyone. Nothing to get tense about any more.
Courtois 6, Azpilicueta 8, Luiz 7 (Terry 84; 6), Cahill 7, Moses 7, Fabregas 9, Matic 7, Alonso 8, Pedro 7 (Chalobah 81; 6), Costa 7, Hazard 7 (Willian 71; 6).
Guzan 6, Fabio 4, Chambers 5, Gibson 5, Friend 6, De Roon 6, Clayton 5, Forshaw 6 (Leadbitter 57; 6), Traore 6 (Bamford 57; 6), Negredo 6 (Gestede 83; 6), Downing 5.
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