This was the week that was meant to ignite the title race. Leaders Chelsea faced a trip to Anfield before hosting Arsenal just five days later, with many predicting a potential swing in momentum. But, as the full-time whistle went at Stamford Bridge, it could not have been clearer – Chelsea will be champions, and deservedly so.
They may not have been at their best against Liverpool in midweek, but claiming a point while those around them proceeded to inexplicably drop them meant Antonio Conte’s side were able to sleep easily on their way back to west London.
Fast-forward to Saturday’s visit of Arsene Wenger’s men, and it was again a display from the Blues that was far from perfect. But, just as they have for much of the season, they did enough to grind out the three points. They are bigger, stronger and, frankly, just better than any other side in the Premier League. When their coronation finally comes in early May, no one will argue that it is not what their efforts deserve.
Marcos Alonso’s opening goal typified everything that Chelsea have been about under Conte this season. Victor Moses and Pedro – two players who have been revitalised under the Italian coach – combined on the right-hand side before crossing for Diego Costa to attack the ball at the near post.
The striker’s header may have smashed into the crossbar, but Alonso showed both more desire than Theo Walcott and superior strength compared to Hector Bellerin to ensure he forced the rebound over the line. Some Gunners supporters questioned the legality of his leap as he led with his arm, but in truth Bellerin was just unfortunate to be left one-on-one with a player with far more physical presence and momentum with him as they battled for the header.
It was perhaps fitting that Alonso would be the man to break the deadlock, given it was his introduction off the bench at the Emirates Stadium back in September that arguably began the Conte revolution. The Spaniard’s arrival on the pitch led to Conte switching to a 3-4-3 system, and the 13-match winning run that followed using that formation has provided the backbone of Chelsea’s title charge.
And, while it was solely brute force that brought about Chelsea’s opener, that strength can also be combined with sheer quality when it comes to Eden Hazard. On his day, the Belgium international remains the Premier League’s best player, and his magnificent individual goal to secure victory summed up everything the winger is about.
Picking up the ball in the centre circle, he immediately set off towards goal, shrugging off Francis Coquelin in the process through his expert body position and core strength. From there, the outcome of him neatly chipping the ball over Petr Cech was inevitable, and in a season of superb goals in the English top-flight, it seems fitting that arguably the best of the lot secured, in theory at least, the title.
Cesc Fabregas added the icing against his former club with an inch-perfect lob after Cech presented him with the opportunity on the edge of the box, but the game was tied up long before, even if Olivier Giroud was able to pull one back in stoppage time.
Chelsea still have tough tests to come – they still have to play both Manchester sides while visits to Goodison Park, Turf Moor and the bet365 Stadium have proved difficult for the majority of the league’s top sides this term.
But Chelsea are not like the league’s top sides. They are far and away the best team in England, and it is now a matter of time before the Premier League trophy is back in the Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet. Few will have any complaints.