It all be­gan Sept. 24 at Arse­nal

Since then, Chelsea has won 15 of 17

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE DOU­GLAS

MANCH­ESTER, ENG­LAND — If, as widely ex­pected, Chelsea goes on to lift the Premier League tro­phy, one game in its ti­tle-win­ning cam­paign will surely be re­mem­bered as the most sig­nif­i­cant for man­ager An­to­nio Conte.

For­get the 4-0 rout of Manch­ester United in Oc­to­ber when re­turn­ing man­ager Jose Mour­inho was hu­mil­i­ated. Or the 5-0 vic­tory over Ever­ton in Novem­ber when ev­ery­thing went right and Eden Haz­ard briefly re­sem­bled Lionel Messi. Or even the come­from-be­hind win at Manch­ester City the fol­low­ing month that firmly in­stalled the team as ti­tle favourite.

The defin­ing 90 min­utes of Chelsea’s sea­son will likely be a loss that led to some se­ri­ous soul-search­ing and, crit­i­cally, a change in for­ma­tion.

A 3-0 loss at Arse­nal on Sept. 24 be­wil­dered Conte. He saw his team play­ing as in­di­vid­u­als, with the wrong at­ti­tude, the wrong bal­ance and with no iden­tity. The only good thing to come out of that ill-fated trip to Emi­rates Sta­dium was a se­cond-half switch to a 3-4-3 for­ma­tion, which fi­nally put Conte’s im­print on his new side and was there to stay.

From a low ebb — eighth in the stand­ings — Chelsea hasn’t looked back.

Fif­teen wins from 17 matches later, Chelsea hosts Arse­nal for their re­turn game on Satur­day with a nine-point lead and with most ob­servers say­ing the ti­tle has been wrapped up.

“I think,” Conte said, “this could be a good chance for us to show that, now, we are a to­tally dif­fer­ent team.”

That’s al­ready been proven. David Luiz looks like a dif­fer­ent player with more free­dom as a libero in a back three. Un­her­alded pair Mar­cos Alonso and Vic­tor Moses have ex­celled as wing­backs, cen­tral mid­fielder N’Golo Kante is pos­si­bly the most in­flu­en­tial player in the league, while for­wards Haz­ard and Pe­dro Ro­driguez have been out­stand­ing with­out hav­ing so much de­fen­sive re­spon­si­bil­ity as part of a front three with top-scorer Diego Costa.

The team is more street­wise and or­ga­nized, as shown in the 1-1 draw at Liver­pool on Tues­day when Chelsea ab­sorbed lots of early pres­sure from the home side be­fore grow­ing into the game and be­ing a late penalty miss from Costa away from win­ning.

Then there’s Arse­nal, which was at the height of its pow­ers in the first half of that Septem­ber game against Chelsea. But, as usual, Arsene Wenger’s team hasn’t lived up to ex­pec­ta­tions, and a 2-1 home loss to Wat­ford on Tues­day ex­posed its flaws and led to the coach ques­tion­ing whether his play­ers were “men­tally ready” for the game.

They will have to be at Stam­ford Bridge on Satur­day, be­cause a loss would al­most cer­tainly knock them out of ti­tle con­tention.

Arse­nal is in third place, tied on points with se­cond-place Tot­ten­ham with 15 matches re­main­ing.

SHAUN BOTTERILL, GETTY IM­AGES

Chelsea will have to deal with Hec­tor Bel­lerin and Arse­nal when they meet Satur­day at Stam­ford Bridge.

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