After extending their winning run to 9 games, Simmo looks at why Chelsea must now be considered favourites to lift the Premier League trophy in May.
Nobody wins the title in December, but you can most certainly lose it. Chelsea’s 3-1 win at The Etihad last weekend put down a marker to all the other teams in the title race. It is the sort of result that makes a big statement – and didn’t Chelsea do just that?
It was not just the the result that was impressive, it was the manner in which they won. Gary Cahill’s own goal just before half time had given Manchester City a deserved lead. In the first half they had outplayed Chelsea and had missed several good chances. Chelsea’s seven game winning run looked like it could well come to an end.
The second half began in much the same way as the first half had ended – City were still on top. However, the game was to be turned on its head in the space of three extraordinary second half minutes. When Jesus Navas crossed the ball to Kevin De Bruyne in the 57th minute, the Belgian looked destined to make it 2-0. The City winger was just six yards out with the whole goal to aim at, yet still, inexplicably managed to miss.
That miss seemed to galvanise Chelsea. When Cesc Fàbregas collected the ball inside his own half there seemed to be little in the way of danger for the City defence. Fàbregas, like Chelsea, has endured a difficult 18 months. Much maligned, criticised, and even at times written off, the Spaniard has looked a shadow of his former self. Persistent rumours have linked him with a move away from the club, yet in this game he perhaps demonstrated his value to the team. His 50 yard pass into Diego Costa was inch perfect, nevertheless, the Chelsea striker still had an awful lot to do. He chested the ball down beyond the hapless Nicolas Otamendi, before smashing the ball past Claudio Bravo.
The goal had come out of nothing – it really was the classic sucker punch. In many ways it was indicative of the sort of tactics Antonio Conte has brought to the Stamford Bridge outfit. It was unpredictable, quick, and lethal. City, for all of their possession had been outclassed and outdone by a goal that really was a throwback to goals scored in years gone by.
Fàbregas’ ingenuity, and Costa’s skill and technique were to be ably backed up by the finishing of both Willian and Eden Hazard. Willian, Chelsea’s best player last season, has had to settle for a peripheral role throughout much of this campaign. His introduction from the bench seemed to further reveal City’s frailties when facing pace. When Costa once again got the better of Otamendi, Chelsea used their pace to deadly affect. Breaking on the City backline, Willian was able to out run Aleksandar Kolarov before calmly slotting past Bravo.
Chelsea’s third goal once again saw City’s lack of pace exposed. Pushing for an equaliser, they neglected their defensive responsibilities, allowing Eden Hazard to this time beat Aleksandar Kolarov before firing into the City net.
All three of Chelsea’s goals had a certain ruthlessness about them. Whilst City had their chances, Chelsea were devastating with their finishing. It is that sort of deadliness in front of goal that wins you titles. When Leicester City visited The Etihad last season they won by the same score line, and there were certainly parallels between Chelsea’s display last weekend and Leicester’s back in January. Both teams absorbed City’s attacks before breaking in numbers and showing good composure in front of goal. City, on both occasions were unable to respond.
Yet, despite the impressive nature of Chelsea’s win, the acid test for a title chasing team is to win when you are not playing well. Before this weekend, Chelsea were yet to demonstrate this. However, their 1-0 victory against West Brom proved that even when were things were not going as well as they hoped they were still able to find a way through.
West Brom had set themselves up to frustrate Chelsea. The 3-4-3 formation that has served Conte and his side so well in recent months was not having the desired impact. A change to a more conventional 4-5-1 proved the catalyst for a change in fortune, and the introduction of Fàbregas from the bench once again proved to be telling.
For much of the game Costa had looked isolated; his teammates had been unable to find any sort of decisive pass. Although the winner was more than a little fortuitous, it came from one of the few times that Chelsea went direct. Costa’s persistence and work rate paid off as Gareth McAuley dallied whilst clearing the ball. Still with a lot to do, the Brazil born Spain international rifled an unstoppable shot past Ben Foster in the West Brom goal.
The performance against West Brom was certainly not vintage, and it was not necessarily the sort of performance that sends out an intimidating warning to rivals. What was impressive was the fact that Chelsea were struggling and yet still managed to find a way to get the win.
This sort of resilience is what title winning teams have to demonstrate. You cannot play well for 38 games in a season – it is nigh on impossible. Therefore, it is important that on your off days you are able to grind out results.
A win is three points wherever you get it. It does not matter who it is against, it still is only ever worth three points. The match against West Brom was perhaps a greater test of character than the win against City. Had Chelsea lost at The Etihad few would have bat an eyelid; had they lost at home to a West Brom team who had not won at Stamford Bridge for nearly 40 years then there would have been many questions asked.
Chelsea have proved twice in the last week that they have the ability, steel, and capability to mount a genuine title challenge. They have proved it against the favourites, and they have proved it in a game where they were struggling to perform. There will be other tests before May, however Chelsea have certainly laid down a marker over the last eight days.