Chelsea saw off Bournemouth 3-1 in an entertaining Saturday tea-time tie as the Blues restore their seven-point lead at the top of the table.
Tottenham’s lunch-time win temporarily cut the visitors’ lead down to four points, but the Blues made no mistake in the sunny south coast, with Smith’s own goal and a superb goal by Eden Hazard giving Chelsea a comfortable 2-0 cushion with just 20 minutes played.
King pulled one back for the hosts, and despite it taking nearly half an hour before Chelsea really put the game to bed with an excellent Marcos Alonso free-kick, the Blues never looked in danger, especially going into the game having only lost once in their last 12 Premier League away matches.
It means Chelsea need 15 more points to guarantee themselves the title, a pursuit which continues next Sunday against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
With Tottenham throwing down the gauntlet by winning 4-0 in their early kick-off, Chelsea needed the best possible start to reassure their fans, but it was quite the opposite when Luiz nearly scored an own goal with a minute played.
Frazer’s cross looked innocuous enough but the Brazilian took a wild swipe at the ball, judging the flight of it horribly and requiring an extreme reflex reaction from Courtois. Luiz signalled to the sun in an attempt to clear any blame on him, but it was a let-off.
Moses was also lucky to escape with just a yellow card — and not a goal conceded — when he deliberately handled the ball to stop Bournemouth running through, but soon enough the visitors got going in the most fortuitous of circumstances.
Moses’ cross found Costa in the penalty area, and his swivel brought about a great chance with his left foot. The Spaniard however absolutely shanked his shot, which would have gone a good five yards wide had Smith not been there to deflect it in off the post. They all count, but it was hard on Bournemouth.
If that was lucky, the second goal three minutes later was anything but.
Pedro fed Kante who swung a delicious 50-yard ball to Hazard, who beat the offside trap to go one-on-one with Boruc. Shaping to curl it but actually going round the goalkeeper, Hazard rounded Boruc to his left and slid the ball home. It was an excellent goal, his 14th of the season and equal to his best total in a Premier League season set in both the 2013/14 and 2014/15 season. The Hazard of last season, who went 31 games without scoring, defies belief and is most definitely gone.
Complacency would be Chelsea’s biggest threat sitting so comfortably on the top of the table and Pugh nearly put that on show when he was in but for Azpilicueta’s excellent blow. Afobe then did brilliantly to control the ball and was unlucky to smash it against the post, ricochet off the back of Courtois, but still the ball did not fall into the net.
A bit of respite for Chelsea saw Pedro fire high and wide and Costa had a chance but was too slow when stride-for-stride with Francis. Then, Hazard found Pedro from a low corner, something that had clearly been worked on on the training ground, but Boruc saved Pedro’s low drive well.
The returning Moses was a menacing attacking threat when given the opportunity and, when in space, found Hazard and Costa, but the latter wasted it. Costa has drawn blanks in the last 3 Premier League games, never going four league games without a goal, but it was not one of his days today.
The hosts are unbeaten in the last five league games and so it was no surprise to see them show some fight, especially with King up top leading the way. The Norwegian, who has scored nine goals in his last 10 appearances, would score his another, albeit with a wicked deflection off Luiz that took it into the top corner past Courtois. It is the ninth game in a row in which the Belgian has conceded.
Could the attacking prowess of Hazard, Pedro and Costa make up for it?
Alonso slid a ball that was aimed for the oncoming Costa but was too close to Boruc, whilst the leaky Chelsea defence had to withstand pressure from a 25-yard Frazer strike and moments later King and Frazer worked the ball around the area but thankfully no-one was there to finish off and Kante hacked clear.
Hazard whipped a cross straight across goal as Costa could not get his head on it, whilst Alonso then set up another opportunity for Costa but the Spaniard failed to get a touch.
Other players needed to take matters into their own hands, and that is exactly what Alonso did from the next set-piece, which ironically Costa won.
Tripped on the edge of the penalty area, Andre Marriner blew for a foul, and all Marcos Alonso needed was a short run-up before the ball sailed over the wall and into Boruc’s goal with the Pole unmoved.
The Blues have won 18 of their 21 league matches this season against the teams currently outside the top six in the table, and with this fire-power, Conte saw out the final 20 minutes by introducing Willian, Fabregas and Zouma.
The win could have been made more convincing had Alonso not wasted a Hazard pass, and Moses did superbly to beat three men before hammering the ball goalward only to see Boruc get a superb hand to it, but Chelsea replied in as emphatic a fashion as Tottenham had set out.
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Man of the Match
EDEN HAZARD: On his day, which has happened a lot this season, the Belgian is magic. It is staggering to believe this same player 12 months ago went 31 games without scoring a goal, because his all-round play this season has been superb. This was no more typified on a sunny Saturday tea-time match at Bournemouth, rounding off an excellent performance with a superb goal. 7/10
Conte urged his players to keep working: “We started the game very well with great attention and focus. Then we conceded the goal and we lost a bit of confidence. In the second half we managed the game and scored another goal, then the free-kick from Marcos Alonso. Now it is important to rest and restart and prepare for the game against Manchester United.”
Howe could not fault his men: “I have to compliment Chelsea, they’re an outstanding team and their system works very well for them. But I compliment my boys as well because they played very well. In the end Chelsea were too strong.”