Chelsea replicates Conte’s grit again in face of pressure

By Richard Buxton

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – Chelsea’s runaway assault on the Premier League title is almost complete.

No matter what happens between now and the close of play on May 21; no matter how hard Tottenham may toil, Antonio Conte’s champions-elect are unlikely to be caught now following a convincing 3-0 victory over Everton on Sunday.

The west Londoners’ last late-April visit to Merseyside saw them cast as bit-part players in the title race, throwing a spanner in the works which proved ultimately fatal for the challenge from one half of the city. Four seasons on, and with their own credentials now at stake, they risked a potential derailing in the most difficult fixture of their title run-in.

Facing the hostility of Goodison Park and the hands of 2017’s in-form home side in Everton was an unenviable challenge, but Conte’s relentless side were never in danger of their travelling supporters’ demand of “vinci per noi” – “win for us” – becoming lost in translation, even if it did require a moment of brilliance to kick-start their eventual festivities.

Chants of “Are you watching, Tottenham?” later began emanating loud and clear from that same corner of the ‘Grand Old Lady’. Mauricio Pochettino’s seemingly perennial bridesmaids could be forgiven for observing events some 200 miles north of the English capital through their fingers; all potential hopes were decimated inside the final 25 minutes.

The Blues have enjoyed more emphatic and comfortable victories than this in the current campaign, but perhaps not as enjoyable for Conte and his players as they celebrated jubilantly in front of the Bullens Road stand. Piggybacking on Thibaut Courtois, the Italian appeared to be in his element as the club’s master of ceremonies.

“I think every win in this part of the season is a great win for us,” said Conte.

“There are four games to go and for us, every win is a great win and we must celebrate every win in the right way, with our players and our fans.

“We are having a great season but to become a fantastic season we must still win.”

The only question is where Chelsea can go from here or, more specifically, with whom.

Diego Costa’s opposite number is soon likely to become the direct replacement; Romelu Lukaku’s return represents a move which appears a natural succession in their modern evolution. He reflects what they hope to represent while Costa is an increasingly ugly remnant of everything they stood for, rightly or wrongly, under Jose Mourinho. In truth, neither fared much better than the other in a contest, which became a relative non-event.

Whether it is the allure of a money-spinning Chinese Super League or the familiar surroundings of Atletico Madrid which wins him over, Costa is almost certain to bring the curtain down on a three-year stay at Stamford Bridge laden with as much admonishment as it has goals. It is a routine has become increasingly played to the point that his histrionics are no longer indulged. That growing intolerance was best summed up by his reaction to a well-timed tackle from Tom Davies, which did not even draw referee Jon Moss’s whistle.

Returning to Stamford Bridge has remained Lukaku’s dream ever since a bittersweet end to his first spell in 2014. It was a crushing blow to a player who had, 12 months before his eventual move, publicly professed his love for the club as a student of the Sint-Gudo-Instituut. Leaving, he insists, was his choice and hindsight suggests that insulating himself against the stigma of Mourinho’s downfall has allowed him to dictate a career path that remains largely on his own terms rather than those of Chelsea’s current whimsy.

However his former club could be forgiven for wondering whether they should reconsider paying at least two-and-a-half times the £28 million fee that his sanctioned sale had generated. They have never been averse to welcoming back their prodigal sons; David Luiz and Nemanja Matic are living proof of that. But there will still be obvious reservations about Lukaku’s seeming incapability to perform on the biggest stage, as there doubtless were of Kevin de Bruyne prior to his Manchester City renaissance.

He has regularly struggled the net against the Premier League’s more esteemed sides has undermined his attempts to break into the highest calibre of strikers. Impressive though his haul of 84 goals in the English top flight has been, only 11 have come in the more high-profile encounters. This was another instance where his reputation preceded him. Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta regularly thwarted him in moments and areas where his brilliance has become self-evident this season.

Costa fared little better, in truth, with a series of gilt-edged chances criminally wasted before Pedro’s wonder strike broke the deadlock. Teeing himself up from a downfield ball from David Luiz appeared to have a predetermined outcome, only for him to fluff his lines spectacularly from close range. More followed when an uncharacteristically short Chelsea corner pinged around the Everton penalty area at will but the Brazilian-born Spain international was again unable to deliver the required punchline.

Worse followed when a carbon copy of the calamitous back-pass, which had allowed one Chelsea striker to pull clear at Anfield, back in 2014, almost came full circle for Costa. Pouncing on a poor ball from Phil Jagielka required guile and a slight touch. A challenge with Maarten Stekelenburg resulted in the Everton goalkeeper being sent flying and the incendiary striker receiving a needless caution for his troubles. Lukaku, for all his flaws, would at least have tried to tread carefully in the same situation.

In his continued absence, Chelsea’s supporting cast took the lead with devastating effect, as Pedro invigorated a game of tactical brinkmanship with a 25-yard drive. Gary Cahill’s slotted finish, derived from Everton’s slapstick defending of an Eden Hazard free kick, saw him become the highest-scoring defender in the Premier League this season.

“It’s a difficult system to play against,” admitted Ronald Koeman.

“They are really experienced, they wait and they are really clinical – and that’s the difference.

“Maybe they missed two, three good chances in the first half but normally it is a team without playing maybe on a high football level that they know they will win the game because they have that quality.”

Lesser teams would have found three games in the space of eight days to be a drain on their momentum. That Conte’s side continues to reflect his energetics is the greatest hallmark of the champions-in-waiting.

Richard Buxton is a U.K.-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Liverpool’s Goodison Park.

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