‘Special’ Chelsea go nine points clear at top
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