* Before the weekend games, I had not expected to be writing about anything other than Chelsea’s coronation, regardless of the result. Saturday’s shock defeat to Crystal Palace changed that, and if conventional wisdom is to be believed, may have introduced an element of doubt into the Chelsea players’ minds.
Although a loss to would-be title rivals Manchester City would have cut the gap to an uncomfortable eight points, in a way this was the perfect game for Antonio Conte’s men to provide an unequivocal response and restore confidence that they do indeed deserve to finish the season at the top of the table.
Conversely, City knew that anything other than a win would rule them out of the title race altogether. It was a biggun alright.
* The game certainly had that big match feeling that for some reason only seems possible under floodlights. It’s a ball-ache for the travelling fans, but selfishly I really like it when big televised games fall in midweek.
I’m not sure what that comes down to; maybe it’s the conditioning of years of big European games, perhaps it’s just that you have all day to look forward to it and can watch having had your dinner and without the distraction of having to come up with something to do afterwards. Local derbies work better in midday sun, title deciders should happen in the dark, and Wagon Wheels should have crimped edges. It’s the natural order of the world.
* Oh, right, football. The task facing Chelsea was made more difficult by Pep Guardiola’s innovative decision to actually play two actual centre-backs at centre-back, with captain Vincent Kompany making a welcome return to the side for only his seventh game of the season.
Fabian Delph also made a surprise start alongside Fernandinho in the Chelsea midfield as Guardiola made a similar change to the one he made against Arsenal at the weekend, sacrificing Raheem Sterling to bring a more defensively-minded player into midfield and push Kevin De Bruyne out wide.
Yaya Toure was lacklustre after coming on against Arsenal, but Delph will have been delighted with the vote of confidence implied by Guardiola’s selection of him rather than the Ivorian. Delph is still only 27, making him younger than Fernando, Fernandinho, Adam Lallana and Jake Livermore. Perhaps he does have a future for club and country after all.
* Conte may have been as surprised by that news as anyone; the Chelsea manager dropped Nemanja Matic to the bench and shifted Cesar Azpilicueta from centre-back to wing-back to accommodate the aptly named Kurt Zouma in the back three. (By which I mean he’s fast; I can neither confirm nor deny the idea that he is an abrupt conversationalist.)
Surprise or not, it still had the intended effect. Leroy Sané has been City’s greatest attacking threat in recent weeks, but with two of Azpilicueta, Pedro and Zouma doubling up on him throughout the first half, he was only able to get through on goal once, with Thibaut Coutrois off his line will to close down the winger just moments after making the error that led to Sergio Aguero’s equaliser.
* The flipside was that City were able to seize control of possession with their greater numbers in the middle, leading Conte to bolster the defensive lines by introducing Matic at the break. Perhaps City should have done more with their advantages in both possession and territory, but as they have so often been this season, they were indomitable.
* Sané may have been largely strangled for space, but opposite number Eden Hazard, not so much. Having got away from Fernandinho and right-back Jesus Navas (four words that I never thought I’d write in the same sentence other than to say “why didn’t they just send him right back to Sevilla?”) just five minutes in, Eden Hazard then drifted into the middle and pulled away from Fernandinho, who was half asleep as Hazard fired past Willy Caballero via the head of countryman Kompany.
Great players are able to make space for themselves, but with Delph correctly heading to close down Azpilicueta at the byline, Fernandinho really should have made Hazard’s life more difficult. It was the beginning of a pretty poor game for the usually dependable Brazilian, who we’ll come back to in a moment.
* The initial error on Aguero’s goal was clearly Courtois’, with the Chelsea keeper hitting a terrible short pass straight at David Silva. Presumably Guardiola immediately leapt off the bench and turned around to the press box to shout: “SEE? THIS IS WHY YOU NEED KEEPERS WHO ARE GOOD WITH THEIR FEET!”
This may be slightly harsh, but I found David Luiz’s reaction to that mistake odd. Luiz initially stepped towards Silva as he headed for goal as though to try and cut off the shot, only to bizarrely back off at the last second and move towards Aguero instead. It’s unlikely he would have got to Silva in time to block the shot, but I wonder whether his hesitation may have put the retreating N’Golo Kante in two minds about how to deal with Aguero, who buried the rebound off Courtois’s save.
* The only surprising thing about Mike Dean’s award of a penalty for Fernandinho’s clear foul on Pedro in the 35th minute was that he didn’t do his weird little half-crouch as he pointed to the spot. There’s not much to say about the foul: it was the most obvious penalty of the season.
By saving Hazard’s resulting spot-kick, Caballero added the Belgian’s name to those of Neymar and Radamel Falcao to his list of ‘Really Good Footballers Whose Penalties I’ve Saved This Season’, which he keeps studiously up to date so he can submit it to Football Santa later in the year in exchange for some new gloves and a tub of head wax…you know, for special occasions and things. But it was only a pyrrhic victory, as Hazard swiftly tucked away the rebound to restore Chelsea’s lead.
* Unfortunately the second half didn’t live up to the promise of the first, but it was a compelling match nonetheless. With the score delicately poised and visitors City enjoying just over 60% of the possession, there was always the chance, just a chance, that there might be another balls-up to complement Courtois’s error.
Sadly for City, it never came. It was fashionable a few years ago to talk about sterile domination, and that’s what we saw here.
* As strong as City’s bench undeniably was, the two men who came on – Nolito and Sterling – didn’t really offer anything that City didn’t already have on the pitch. Considering how much control City had in the midfield, even after Matic’s introduction, I was slightly surprised that Toure didn’t come on for the poor Fernandinho in an attempt to harness his dambuster-like tendencies. It’s not like Guardiola had anything to lose by throwing caution to the wind: their title challenge is over with this defeat.
It’s that stubbornness that makes you think Guardiola’s critics might have a point sometimes. His record is beyond reproach and he clearly has a winning system, but you can certainly understand the argument that there is folly in his insistence on sticking to it no matter what, even if you don’t happen to agree.
* The BT Sport commentator mentioned that it felt like an away performance from Chelsea, and oh boy did it. Just 15 minutes in, with Chelsea a goal ahead and the ball in open play, I counted eight Chelsea players either inside or within a couple of yards of the penalty box, as a metrically-precise Andy Townsend might put it.
I do not for one second mean that as a criticism. It was a fantastic team effort and a wonderful example of how to reserve energy through tactical discipline. One of the striking things about Chelsea this season has been how fresh their line-up has been, and while obviously their lack of European commitments helps, this performance helped show why they have remained so tireless.
* In fact, there was only one Chelsea outfield starter who didn’t make a single tackle all game, and I’ll give you ten guesses who it was. Yep: the defensive midfield force of nature that is Kante. Luiz and Hazard made one each, Zouma and Alonso three; the rest of the side made two apiece.
Tackling stats don’t tell you too much in isolation, of course, but here it is perhaps reflective of a side who are effective and efficient at sharing the load.
* Kante by no means had a bad game, mind. The only starter for either side who was more precise with his passes than the Chelsea dynamo (95.1%) was Sane (95.7%); the only Chelsea players who attempted more passes than Kante (41) were Fabregas and Marcos Alonso (43 each, and both with identical accuracy of 74.4%).
Again, there is always a risk in looking at statistics without context, but the point is that in a 3-4-3, everyone needs to be able to do a bit of everything and do it all well. When you look at how Chelsea played both in this game and in the season as a whole, they did what good teams do, with the players capable in both body and mind of covering for each other’s weaknesses. As a result, it’s next to impossible to point to any one fault that needs addressing. And that is why they will be champions.
* That means it’s one of those odd years for the individual awards, if it’s not too early to be talking about that. It isn’t and I am.
For the second year running you could make a strong argument that it ought to be Kante, and perhaps he will win it as a kind of apology for not giving it to him at the end of last campaign.
But it must surely be Hazard. After taking a well-earned sabbatical last year, during which Chelsea curiously opted to play a man who looked exactly like Hazard but clearly wasn’t him, the Belgian has been in excellent form this year and will surely scoop his second player of the year award.
* Now that they are out of the running, Guardiola will be incredibly keen not to see his side repeat last season’s decline. Going into their game against Leicester on February 6, Manuel Pellegrini’s men were three points behind the league leaders and eventual champions. Their 3-1 defeat in that game precipitated an awful end to the season, with 2-1 and 3-0 defeats to Spurs and Liverpool respectively immediately following their loss to Leicester.
Their 14 games following that match yielded just five wins, four draws and five defeats, dropping them from second to finishing fourth on goal difference.
With Arsenal and Manchester United both just four points behind them and each with a game in hand, they cannot afford a repeat of that. Like a DFS sale, their run of three draws and a defeat must end now.
* Even despite Spurs’ late turnaround against Swansea, it’s incredibly hard to see how Chelsea could muff this now. Their hardest league games are at Old Trafford over Easter and at Goodison Park on the weekend of the first May bank holiday.
Even if they only take two points from those games, they should really cruise to the title: their remaining games are Bournemouth and West Brom away, and Middlesbrough, Watford and Sunderland at home.
Someone get to the King Power Stadium and prise that trophy out of Wes Morgan’s cold dead hands: it’s very nearly time to hand it over.
Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter here