‘Spe­cial’ Chelsea go nine points clear at top

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - By Sam Wal­lace CHIEF FOOT­BALL WRITER

Chelsea man­ager An­to­nio Conte pre­dicted a “spe­cial fu­ture” for his team af­ter they won their 11th straight Premier League game against Crys­tal Palace to go nine points clear at the top. The vic­tory equalled the club’s bestever run and took them to within three wins of Ar­se­nal’s all-time record of 14.

The match-win­ner was Diego Costa, whose fifth book­ing means that he and N’Golo Kanté, also cau­tioned for the fifth time, will be sus­pended for the Boxing Day visit of Bournemouth to Stam­ford Bridge. Conte praised his team’s ef­fort and said that he had been able to find “the right fit” for his play­ers, de­mor­alised af­ter their 10th place fin­ish last sea­son. Conte said: “If I don’t say I’m pleased for this rea­son [the 11match run], I’d be a dis­hon­est man. For sure, I’m not a per­son who loves sta­tis­tics. But this is my first sea­son in Eng­land and it is fan­tas­tic [to have played] 17 games and to have won 14 of them. I like to see that in the present, but I want the fu­ture to be spe­cial for us. I only know one way for this, it is to work, work and work.”

He said that Costa had played de­spite dis­com­fort from tight­ness in his mus­cles af­ter the game against Sun­der­land and that his side would miss his pres­ence. “I hoped for Diego to ar­rive at the game against Stoke [on Dec 31] with­out the yel­low card. It didn’t hap­pen. It’s a pity. It’s a pity be­cause he’s in a good mo­ment of form. He didn’t de­serve the yel­low card, I must be hon­est, but against Bournemouth we have eight days to find a dif­fer­ent so­lu­tion. For me, this can be an op­por­tu­nity to see other so­lu­tions or other ideas. But, if you ask me if I’m dis­ap­pointed to lose him and Kanté, yes I’m dis­ap­pointed.”

Mid­fielder Wil­lian be­came the first Chelsea player to speak about the de­par­ture of com­pa­triot Os­car to Chi­nese Su­per League side Shang­hai SIPG for £60 mil­lion. “He [Os­car] has said good­bye,” Wil­lian told ESPN Brazil. “He’s a good friend and a great player. We wish him the best, him and his fam­ily. The life of a player goes quickly, it can end quickly and when an op­por­tu­nity like this comes up we think of our fam­i­lies.”

An­to­nio Conte was punch­ing the air by the time he got within dis­tance of the Chelsea fans on the far side of the Sel­hurst Park pitch, a brief glimpse of what the Ital­ian looks like when he is ex­tremely pleased with his team’s per­for­mance, and there was, in­deed, much to be pleased about.

The 11th straight vic­tory of Chelsea’s win­ning run was one of those games in which the op­po­si­tion’s hope was crushed in stages, and by the time the sub­sti­tute An­dros Townsend’s cross was skied high into the Holmes­dale Stand, Crys­tal Palace knew they were not get­ting close. This is how Chelsea are do­ing it now, with the min­i­mum of fuss to take them within sight of Ar­se­nal’s 2002 record of 14.

They will have to beat Bournemouth on Boxing Day with­out the ben­e­fit of their match-win­ner against Palace, Diego Costa, who picked up his fifth book­ing of the sea­son and a one-match sus­pen­sion. So, too, N’Golo Kanté, who will be miss­ing dur­ing that game as well, which prompted the usual ques­tions about whether both had se­lected a con­ve­nient time to clean up their cards.

Conte protested that was not the case and given that Costa was last booked on Sept 23, you had to give him the ben­e­fit of the doubt. Two more games and both of them would have been given a clean slate any­way, and cer­tainly Chelsea will be a very dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion with­out the pair of them.

To­gether they have been a key part of a win­ning run that equals Chelsea’s best se­quence of Premier League vic­to­ries back in late 2009.

Costa took his 13th league goal of the sea­son with the usual ef­fi­ciency while Palace’s chances, just the two of them, were both wasted. Alan Pardew pointed out that one would not ex­pect such a per­fect cross from a cen­tre-half to cre­ate the chance for the Chelsea strik- er, but it was duly de­liv­ered by César Azpilicueta and Costa’s fin­ish made Palace’s re­treat­ing de­fence look very or­di­nary.

This was not Chelsea’s most awein­spir­ing vic­tory since they went down 3-0 to Ar­se­nal in Septem­ber, rather it was the man­ner in which they re­stricted and con­trolled Palace, whose op­por­tu­ni­ties seemed to dwin­dle as they chased the game. Pardew spoke about Chelsea’s de­fen­sive or­gan­i­sa­tion with rev­er­ence and was care­ful not to be too hard on his team.

Eden Haz­ard and Ne­manja Matic came back into the Chelsea side who won at Sun­der­land on Wed­nes­day night and helped them to ex­ert the usual con­trol.

Conte has a de­ci­sion to make as to whether or not he places his con­fi­dence in Michy Bat­shuayi for the game against Bournemouth, but it was easy to tell af­ter­wards that he is en­joy­ing his first sea­son in English foot­ball.

De­scrib­ing him­self once again as a tai­lor who tried to find “the right fit” for Chelsea, Conte was duly asked whether 11 wins in a row en­ti­tled him to call him­self the Gior­gio Ar­mani of English foot­ball. Tak­ing note of the club’s lu­cra­tive com­mer­cial part­ner­ship in that re­gard, he sim­ply replied “Dolce and Gab­bana”.

Palace have lost eight of their past 10 matches, al­though this was just their sec­ond home league game of the sea­son in which they had failed to score.

The two chances they did cre­ate came from the right wing and the crosses of Martin Kelly in the first half, but Ja­son Pun­cheon and then James McArthur both failed to hit the tar­get with their at­tempts.

The is­sue at Palace seems to be whether they can trade their way out of trou­ble in Jan­uary, and Boxing Day’s away game at Wat­ford feels pretty in­te­gral to how the club will feel about their em­bat­tled man­ager come the end of the year. Af­ter Ar­se­nal on New Year’s Day, they play Swansea City at home and if Pardew’s side can­not win that game then se­ri­ous ques­tions will have to be asked.

“We’ve got to get some points on the board and start win­ning some games,” Pardew said. “This was al­ways go­ing to be dif­fi­cult. Chelsea are very sound de­fen­sively and didn’t re­ally give us any chance to get at them as much as we’d have liked. They were con­fi­dent in their de­fend­ing, good shape and discipline to their ac­tions, and did enough of­fen­sively to edge it.”

Palace had been do­ing a de­cent job of it un­til one minute be­fore the end of the reg­u­la­tion 45, when they per­mit­ted Haz­ard to raise his head and stroke a pass into the stride of Azpilicueta on the right side, and sud­denly the home team were in trou­ble.

Palace were re­treat­ing quickly, but nowhere near quick enough for Scott Dann to be able to get into po­si­tion to chal­lenge Costa, who was wait­ing for the ball in front of him from Azpilicueta. When it came, Dann could barely turn him­self round in time to see Costa flight his header over Wayne Hen­nessey and into the far cor­ner of the Palace goal.

“The dis­ap­point­ment with the goal is we didn’t get enough pres­sure on the cen­tre-half,” Pardew said, “but then again you don’t ex­pect him to find the cen­tre-for­ward with a pass of that qual­ity. It was the per­fect pass. But look, my team tried ev­ery­thing. We threw ev­ery­thing we could at them, but they were just too good de­fen­sively for us.”

He had re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to switch for­ma­tion as David Moyes had done with Sun­der­land in mid­week, and in the first half Palace had done enough to sti­fle Chelsea in mid­field while cre­at­ing those two good chances of their own. In the sec­ond half it was Chelsea who cre­ated the bet­ter chances and Mar­cos Alonso struck the bar with a free-kick when he fi­nally per­suaded David Luiz to let him take one.

In this 11-match run, Chelsea have con­ceded just two goals, to Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur and Manch­ester City, the for­mer of which they will play on Jan 4 in what could po­ten­tially be their 14th win and the equalling of Ar­se­nal’s 14-year record. One imag­ines White Hart Lane would be the ideal place for Conte’s play­ers to do it, the scene of their New Year’s Day 5-3 de­mo­li­tion two years ago.

“I’m not a per­son who loves sta­tis­tics,” Conte said af­ter­wards when the dis­cus­sion turned to records, but he did ad­mit that 11 wins in a row was a start in English foot­ball that he could barely have dreamed of when he took over this strug­gling side six months ago.

Hit man: Diego Costa (right) watches keenly as his header finds the net at Sel­hurst Park to se­cure Chelsea’s 11th suc­ces­sive vic­tory

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