Chelsea extend their lead at the top of the table to 13 points, but they left it late against a stubborn Stoke City side.
Two set-pieces in the first half, one free-kick from Willian and one penalty by Walters, looked to be the only goals of the game as both teams would have to settle for a share of the spoils, but Cahill, who earlier gave away the penalty against Walters, atoned with three minutes left on the clock.
The Blues have won 18 of their 20 Premier League matches this season against the teams currently outside the top five, but only won two of their last seven games away to Stoke in all competitions, so it was no surprise to see a cagey match settled only in the 87th minute by a Cahill winner.
In the end though the Blues do march back to London with three points and, with title rivals playing later, a healthy 13-point gap with 10 games left to play.
Costa, clearly incensed with the lack of protection, could not keep his mouth shut for much beyond a quarter of an hour, and Taylor showed him the early yellow card.
But whilst on a personal level Costa was unhappy, his side should have been in celebratory mood as Willian’s free-kick gave the visitors an early lead. Sensing opportunity and seeing a gap in Lee Grant’s goal, Willian took his set-piece quickly and Grant fumbled the ball into his own net in a comical goal, but they all count as Willian, who scored twice against Stoke on New Year’s Eve, wheeled away to celebrate.
The Potters have kept three clean sheets in their last four league games, but the record was not to be preserved here. It could have got worse had Victor Moses’ shot not been blocked. Alonso then was on the receiving end of a well-worked set-piece by Willian, but shot straight at Lee Grant when anywhere else and it would have been a second.
Costa nearly laid on a perfect through-ball to Pedro, who was on the move and would have been one-on-one, but Stoke had their opportunities, especially when Arnautovic squared a ball into the box before Kante intercepted.
Stoke then thought they had equalised, but a superb call by assistant Adam Nunn denied the goal. On initial viewing it looked like Nunn’s flag was raised for offside, but goalscorer Martins Indi was not, but the foul appeared to have been instead about Berahino’s push on Azpilicueta, with the Englishman offside and interfering with play by stopping Apilicueta potentially getting to the ball before Martins Indi did.
It was a superb call, but Stoke would be on the receiving end of a favourable refereeing call minutes later.
A free-kick floated in looked long and was to be Courtois’ all day, except Gary Cahill wanted to make sure Walters could not reach it by pushing him over. Chelsea have only given away one spot-kick this season but, despite no protestation, Taylor awarded Walters the spot-kick, and Walters himself blasted home.
The Blues have kept just two clean sheets in their last nine league games, having recorded 10 shut-outs in the previous 12 matches, but despite the defensive frailties the attacking prowess was still on show.
Pedro had two great chances, one with each foot, from 10 yards out but was inaccurate, whilst later on in the match the Spaniard was slow when one-on-one and allowed Cameron to get back.
Luiz was clever to read a cut-back by the Stoke attack and broke up play effectively, but the second half was as evenly-pegged as the first.
Pedro was then nearly fed through by Willian but for Pieters to haul him down, bringing him a yellow card, whilst Alonso was agonisingly close to doubling his side’s lead from a free-kick, with the crossbar still rattling for several seconds afterwards.
Matic tried his hand at a long-range speculative shot just as Cesc Fabregas was about to enter the fray as Conte looked to press on.
Pedro and Willian were again continuing to be at the thick of things, but evidently missing Eden Hazard, who had to miss today’s game with an unspecified injury.
Loftus-Cheek then came on in a rare appearance, but Stoke were well-organised and well-drilled.
But for all their huffing and puffing, there was last-minute heart-break as Gary Cahill atoned for his earlier penalty giveaway with a right-footed shot from inside the box. Loftus-Cheek did well to pressure Pieters to give away a corner, and from Willian’s delivery Cahill slammed home the loose ball.
Costa, aiming for his 50th Premier League goal, then hit the post, before Bardsley was sent off late on for picking up a needless second yellow card, but victory will be sweet for Antonio Conte, with his side digging out the points as, some would say, the mark of champions.
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Man of the Match
WILLIAN: Huffed and puffed and, alongside Pedro, at the centre of every Chelsea action. Not given much game time under Antonio Conte, with Pedro and Hazard when fit preferred as the two support men for Costa, but the Brazilian today showed perfectly why he can put in a shift too, being smart to take his goal from the free-kick and an all-round excellent display, getting into shooting positions and weaving his way in and out of defenders with ease due to a quick change of pace. 7/10
Conte was not getting ahead of himself, but enjoyed the win: “I am pleased because to play Stoke at this point of the season, you have to be prepared mentally and physically. It was a tough game We need to take 21 points for the title win. There are 10 games to go, today was a great win, a good signal but it is important to continue with the same commitment and work rate as a team.”
Hughes rued the loss: “We are desperately disappointed we did not get anything out of the game.It was an evenly matched game and they had late opportunities when we went for a goal. It is Chelsea’s title now and you could see from their celebrations we ran them close.”