One moun­tain and four hillocks en route to ti­tle

Chelsea have ar­rested their slight stum­ble but face a tricky step against Ever­ton at Good­i­son Park, writes Richard Jolly

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Chelsea’s path to the Premier League tro­phy fea­tures five ob­sta­cles, but the first is the great­est – against Ever­ton to­day, writes Richard Jolly.

Chelsea do not have five peaks to scale as much one moun­tain and four hillocks. The path to the ti­tle fea­tures five ob­sta­cles, but the first is the great­est. They face Ever­ton, Mid­dles­brough, West Bromwich Al­bion, Wat­ford and Sun­der­land, three at home, two per­haps doomed to rel­e­ga­tion.

With a four-point ad­van­tage, An­to­nio Conte’s side can ac­tu­ally af­ford to lose at Good­i­son Park to­day and still be­come cham­pi­ons.

How­ever, es­cape from a trip to Mersey­side un­scathed and they would seem un­stop­pable.

“What hap­pens this Sun­day can be re­ally de­ci­sive about the ti­tle race,” Ever­ton man­ager Ron­ald Koe­man man­ager.

While Conte stuck to the mantra that his side have to fight to the end, the sense is the Ital­ian long recog­nised that. He be­gan last week’s FA Cup semi-fi­nal against Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur with Diego Costa and Eden Haz­ard on the bench per­haps not so much with Southamp­ton in mind as Ever­ton.

Tues­day’s vis­i­tors were duly beaten 4-2 but it is safe to as­sume Ever­ton loomed larger in his imag­i­na­tion.

Chelsea cer­tainly fig­ured promi­nently in Koe­man’s mind. Two weeks ago, after Burnley were beaten to seal Ever­ton’s Premier League record eighth suc­ces­sive home league win, he im­me­di­ately men­tioned that Chelsea came next.

It was an early warn­ing a run could end. By this week, Koe­man was more buoy­ant, talk­ing of Ever­ton’s his­toric home’s ca­pac­ity to in­tim­i­date.

“Op­po­si­tion teams have more doubts these days when they come to Good­i­son and that’s a good thing,” he said. Only Tot­ten­ham and Chelsea boast bet­ter home records this sea­son, yet the league lead­ers had prior knowl­edge of the dif­fi­cul­ties of go­ing to Mersey­side.

They suf­fered three de­feats in the past three sea­sons, in­ter­rupted only by a 6-3 win that Jose Mour­inho claimed not to en­joy.

The anar­chy jarred with his in­nate pref­er­ence for con­trol.

Costa was sent off in a 2-0 FA Cup de­feat last March, six months after the trans­for­ma­tion of ti­tle win­ners into sur­prise strug­glers was fast-tracked by a Steven Nai­smith hat-trick. Go back a fur­ther two years and Nai­smith con­demned Mour­inho to the first de­feat of his sec­ond spell in charge.

Chelsea may take so­lace from the fact their unglam­orous tor­men­tor now plays in the Cham­pi­onship for Nor­wich.

But a player with rather more pedi­gree of­fers a greater threat.

Lukaku never scored in 15 ap­pear­ances for the Lon­don­ers, largely as a re­place­ment.

He has be­come the first player to strike in nine suc­ces­sive games at Good­i­son Park since Dixie Dean 83 years ago.

He is tipped to re­join Chelsea in the sum­mer.

This could seem a job interview for a po­ten­tial £100 mil­lion (Dh475.7m) man. “He is a re­ally good player,” Conte said. “We must find a so­lu­tion to stop Lukaku.”

Koe­man may re­visit a so­lu­tion he de­vised to stop Conte. The Dutch­man was the first man­ager to alight on the sys­tem oth­ers have used suc­cess­fully against Chelsea, lin­ing up with three at the back at Stam­ford Bridge in Novem­ber.

It ranked as a dis­as­trous ex­per­i­ment that oth­ers – Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino and Mour­inho in par­tic­u­lar – learnt from. Koe­man, who was with­out the sus­pended Idrissa Gueye and the in­jured James McCarthy, fielded a pow­der-puff mid­field of Gareth Barry and Tom Clev­er­ley.

Ever­ton were over­run as Haz­ard ran ram­pant in a 5-0 win. Ever­ton are an al­to­gether stronger propo­si­tion now.

Chelsea, with­out a clean sheet in the league since Jan­uary, are in a more fal­li­ble one.

Yet they have re­sponded to their evis­cer­a­tion at Old Traf­ford by show­ing char­ac­ter and flair in equal measure to see off Tot­ten­ham and Southamp­ton, both 4-2. A third tri­umph would ren­der this the finest week of Conte’s reign and, as he would deem win­ning the Premier League his great­est feat in management, per­haps the best of his coach­ing ca­reer.

He only re­ally has one more moun­tain to climb.

Ben Stansall / AFP

Eden Haz­ard, cen­tre, and Chelsea had it all go their way against Ever­ton at Stam­ford Bridge when the teams met in Novem­ber, a 5-0 win for the hosts. Fast for­ward, Chelsea’s march has stum­bled slightly as they head to Ever­ton’s in­tim­i­dat­ing Good­i­son Park.

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