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
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.
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.