Chelsea 1 West Brom 0: Diego Costa’s 12th goal of the season took Chelsea to their ninth successive league victory and back to the top of the Premier League – three points clear of Arsenal – but just imagine where they would be if they could do first halves.
Antonio Conte’s men were resisted defiantly by West Bromwich Albion for 75 minutes, having started slowly yet again, before a fatal a mistake by Baggies’ defender Gareth McAuley gave Costa a sniff of goal. The Chelsea striker is in the sort of form that does not allow for such errors. He took advantage of McAuley’s hesitation, out-muscled the big defender and arrowed a shot high into the far corner of Ben Foster’s goal to clinch three points for the Blues.
It was harsh on West Brom, who had smothered Costa and Co up to that point, although it has to be said that yet again Chelsea were slow out of the blocks, taking 40 minutes before registering their first effort on target, a free kick from David Luiz that was saved easily by Foster.
Whether it is a deliberate ploy by Conte to keep his powder dry until the closing stages of games is a matter of speculation, but it was not the first time this season that Chelsea had failed to impose themselves in the first half. Against Liverpool, Tottenham and most devastatingly Arsenal, who were 3-0 ahead by the break when the two teams met, Chelsea were outplayed for the first 45 minutes. There have been other examples too, yet Conte’s men have the stamina and quality to step on the gas in the closing stages of games and secure maximum points.
“I’d prefer to take the lead early, but we know it’s not easy in this league,”admitted Conte. “We are working very well on different aspects, not only tactically but physically too, so we can arrive at the end and push on to play with great intensity until the end.”
Of course you need keep your best players on the pitch, and Conte has managed to turn around the headstrong Costa remarkably. This is his longest run without a booking for six years, yet when Costa received his fourth yellow card of the season in the defeat at Arsenal on September 28, a suspension seemed only a matter of time. Now the striker is only four games away from a New Year’s amnesty, which will wipe the slate clean.
When asked about the reason for Costa’s transformation from devil to angel, Conte crossed his fingers and laughed. But he has clearly instilled a sense of discipline in a group of players who made Captain Bligh’s crew on the Bounty look loyal by comparison, this time last year.
The anniversary of Jose Mourinho’s sacking is on Saturday, and the transformation at Chelsea in a year is astonishing. They are now clear favourites to win the Premier League, and this is their best winning run since 2005 when they won it under Mourinho. Fittingly, several of the class of 2005 were at the club this week, with Joe and Ashley Cole on the training ground and Frank Lampard watching the current team beat a stubborn West Brom — eventually.
Tony Pulis has made his side hard to beat, and gave as good as they got for the first hour. Unable to get behind West Brom’s defence, Chelsea resorted to shooting from long range and Foster was not really stretched. It looked the sort of cagey game where a moment of brilliance or a defensive mistake would settle it, and we got both at the same time. McAuley failed to clear a speculative high ball from Cesc Fabregas, fast becoming a supersub, and Costa did the rest with a superb finish.
A flurry of substitutions followed, but West Brom rarely threatened Thibaut Coutois, while the Blues did enough to see out the game and collect all three points.
“We showed great maturity and patience to find the right solution to win, so I’m pleased,” added Conte. “Now it’s important to be focused because we have a lot of games in the Christmas period.”
Chelsea travel to Sunderland on Wednesday, closing in on Arsenal’s record of 14 successive victories, spread over two seasons in 2002. “I’m not interested in the record. I’m interested in gaining three points in every game because that means we can stay top of the table and fighting for something important. We’ve only played 15 games and must continue,” said Conte.
And there will be no letting up under Conte, whose quiet persona in front of the press belies a tough taskmaster. “All the players can improve a lot, and only through work every day. For this reason, I’m very satisfied with the commitment from my players. Today wasn’t an easy game, but they showed me great application, great commitment and concentration. For sure this is the right way, but we must continue.”
Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 7, Cahill 6, Luiz 6; Moses 6 (Fabregas 73), Kante 7, Matic 6, Alonso 6; Pedro 7 (Willian 63), Costa 8, Hazard 7 (Ivanovic 78)
Subs not used:
Begovic, Batshuayi, Chalobah, Aina
Foster 7; Dawson 6, McAuley 5, Evans 7, Nyom 6; Brunt 6(Robson-Kanu 84), Fletcher 7, Yacob 6, Morrison 6 (Chadli 78), Phillips 6 (McClean 78); Rondon 6
Subs not used:
Olsson, Gardner, Galloway, Palmer
Mike Dean (Wirral)
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