Chelsea are champions in Conte's first season after hard-fought 1-0 win at West Brom
Chelsea are crowned Premier League champions for the sixth time in their history, but were made to work for it with a slender 1-0 victory against West Brom.
The Baggies had to withstand 24 shots and surrendered 68% of the possession, but kept the Blues waiting until the 82nd minute, where unlikely hero Michy Batshuayi showed something for his £32 million price tag to score the title-winning goal.
It caps off a fantastic debut season in England for Antonio Conte, who becomes only the fourth manager to lift the Premier League trophy in his first season in England, and means Chelsea secure their fifth Premier League title in the last 13 seasons, a record only matched by Manchester United.
It was clear Chelsea wanted to win this from the off and leave two games spare to give fringe players a chance and, of course, give John Terry a proper farewell.
However it was not going to be a mere formality. 20 seconds Rondon leapt highest and Chelsea needed a tall goalkeeper in Courtois to to tip over the bar.
But, bar the initial lapse, it was Chelsea chance after Chelsea chance, but credit to West Brom’s disciplined defending.
Hazard drew a foul and an early free-kick opportunity for Fabregas was nearly turned in by Cahill, whilst Fabregas yet again tried to turn provider for Costa.
Pedro took matters in his own hands when he tried to re-create his spectacular opener against Everton last month, but saw his effort sky over the bar.
A marginal penalty claim for Chelsea was ignored by Michael Oliver, the Premier League’s most-used referee this season, whilst Azpilicueta was the next man to have a shot which was deflected behind for another corner.
The warning signs were there though on more than one occasion: Fabregas lost the ball high up in West Brom’s half but all of a sudden a West Brom counter saw two chasing down the solitary Gary Cahill, but Hazard did superbly well to track back and clear danger. Moments later there was another similar West Brom counter, an ominous sign for the visitors but indicative the Blues did not care if they drew or lost — they were here for the win.
More drama saw more set-pieces go Chelsea’s way, firstly Moses was brought down and Cahill had a good chance from the ensuing free-kick, whilst a penalty claim by Hazard, who went down under Evans’ challenge, was perhaps more 50-50. Michael Oliver was right on it.
West Brom were doing well to keeping Chelsea back, with the visitors resorting to long-range 25-yard drives by Azpilicueta or Fabregas. 11 attempts in the first half an hour summed up the persistence, but only one was on target whilst West Brom already had two from just three shots.
Being more clinical was what Chelsea needed to work on after the break and the first two chances went to Moses, who did brilliantly to evade Brunt and McLean but Foster’s hands were strong.
Luiz had to be alert at the other end when Fulham did have the odd chance, but it was West Brom who really had to be on their toes. Fabregas sliced a shot wide, whilst Hazard was nearly through which almost led a Dawson own goal.
The Blues were still huffing and puffing: Costa was found in the centre but dallied with his shot and failed to released Pedro who would have been in, whilst Fabregas was a fraction of a second too slow in releasing the ball to Hazard, who would have beaten the offside trap.
Late jitters gave West Brom the opportunity to steal the unlikely lead. Rondon was one-on-one with Luiz, who tried to bring him down which could have brought the red card, but the Venezuelan kept his footing and raced in on Courtois’ goal. Mercifully Azpilicueta got back.
Then, Chadli was again through on the right flank; another huge one-on-one chance but the former Tottenham man dragged it wide.
It looked like Conte would bring on Kante to sure up the defence which looked prone to a counter-attack, but the Italian was not messing about. Willian and Batshuayi came on, whilst Hazard and Pedro, for all their efforts, had been too well contained by West Brom.
But the night was Chelsea’s; Batshuayi would make his impact within six minutes of his introduction.
Having given the ball away multiple times and conceded three fouls in those six minutes, he would then prove to be the unlikely goalscorer and seal the trophy for Chelsea. The ball dropped nicely to Cahill in the centre of the goal, but his shot was skewed wide. Thankfully Azpilicueta was alert where Brunt was not, and the Spaniard recycled the ball which was not going to go out of play, squaring to Batshuayi to tap home from two yards out.
Five minutes of injury time prolonged the agony and delayed the celebrations, but the bubbly was to be popped open soon enough. Conte had conquered England in his debut season.
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Man of the Match
ANTONIO CONTE: Azpilicueta would probably go down as my Player of the Match, but the man underpinning tonight, and indeed the entire season’s success, has to go down to Antonio Conte. Tactics were on-point, as they were early in the season when he spotted the need to change to a back five, but on the night too, unafraid to take off Hazard and Pedro in the pursuit of a more direct option in Batshuayi. And it paid off in some style. 9/10
Conte was reflective: “This is a great achievement for the players. I thank them for their commitment and work rate. They show me a great attitude to try to do something great this season. It was not easy for me to arrive in England and try different habits, a different language and inherit players after a bad season. We were not lucky, we did a great job. It’s important to rest. It is a great season but now we can win the FA Cup.” On his animated touch-line antics: “Every game I feel like I have played with my players! I show my passion and my will, my desire to stay with my players in every moment of the game. This is me, I am this. In the present, in the past, I stay with my players in positive and negative situations. We won this title together.” On his switch of formation in October: “That decision changed our season. We had to change and find a new suit for our team. In my mind there was this option to play a 3-4-3 because I knew I had the players to do that.”
Pulis was full of praise for his counter-part: “They’re worthy champions alright. They had a poor start, and Conte had to change things. He has made it his team. He changed their shape and they’ve been superb from that moment onwards.”