This was a slog, a result ground out against such awkward opposition, but Chelsea may end up gleaning more satisfaction from prevailing in those circumstances than from some of the more comfortable strolls enjoyed over a nine-match winning streak.
The leaders have reimposed a three-point cushion from the pack at the top of the division, ending West Bromwich Albion’s own impressive recent unbeaten run in the process. There is something relentless about Antonio Conte’s team at present and, since early October, no one has found a way of checking their momentum.
Tony Pulis and his industrious team came close. This game had entered its last 15 minutes, with the hosts on their third formation of the afternoon and anxiety mounting, when West Brom finally cracked. Cesc Fàbregas, flung on in desperation as a central playmaker in the revamped lineup, lofted a hopeful pass down the right which Gareth McAuley would have expected to repel. The centre-half had spent most of the afternoon doing just that yet, on this occasion, he was ambushed by the rampaging Diego Costa. The forward bustled in, stealing the ball and edging goalwards before ripping a glorious left-footed shot from a horribly tight angle into the far top corner as Ben Foster edged out to smother.
It was a stunning goal, a 12th in the league this season and a timely reminder of how Costa has become a source of reassurance for this team. November’s Premier League player of the month used to be such a snarling presence in this side, but now he inspires. He had toiled for long periods here alone against the visitors’ rearguard, with little hint of reward en route, but did not grow frustrated – he has not been booked since that last loss, at Arsenal on 24 September – and simply would not be denied. The bearhug offered to the Spain international by his manager at the final whistle summed up his significance.
By then, the majority in this stadium could bask in a sense of relief that West Brom had finally been broken. The visitors’ resolve had been admirable. Pulis has always had a penchant for asking natural centre-halves to fill in at full-back as he flings down an imposing barrier, but here the rugged quartet were backed up by workaholic wingers in Matt Phillips and Chris Brunt. They retreated diligently into the full-back areas whenever West Brom surrendered the ball, leaving Chelsea’s forward-thinkers effectively confronted by a back six suffocating any semblance of space on their approach. They duly found all the areas of the pitch where they have flourished over the last two months clogged up, all the space in which they have revelled suddenly denied them. In truth, that left them flummoxed for long periods.
It was not until four minutes before the interval that they mustered a shot on target and, even then, David Luiz’s free-kick was easily gathered by Foster. The goalkeeper’s only flash of concern had been when N’Golo Kanté’s shot flicked off Pedro and bobbled just wide of a post. Indeed, the better opportunities had been carved out by the visitors on the counterattack, Brunt curling just wide and Salomon Rondón muscling David Luiz off the ball before guiding a shot just beyond the far post.
Phillips, too, was a nuisance whenever given an opportunity to tee up a cross, Gary Cahill doing well to cut out a cross as Darren Fletcher threatened to convert, though Chelsea’s was inevitably the greater urgency as the contest progressed. Conte switched to a back four, first asking Victor Moses to switch from right wing-back to left wing, then overloaded up front in an attempt to stretch resolute opponents. Even so, for all the huff and puff, they were blunt until McAuley’s rare lapse and Costa’s emphatic intervention. They will travel to Sunderland on Wednesday seeking a 10th successive win with belief growing the title can be regained.
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