London: In theory, there is still time for Chelsea’s rivals to catch and overhaul them at the top of the Premier League. In reality, though, it is beginning to feel almost inconceivable. Chelsea just look too strong, too experienced and too streetwise. They passed their latest test with distinction at West Ham and it would have to be something dramatic now to imagine any other scenario than another open-top bus parade along the King’s Road.
Another team in Chelsea’s position might have wobbled in the circumstances — a London derby under the floodlights against an improving side — bearing in mind their two nearest challengers, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, both won over the weekend. Nobody, however, should doubt the durability of the side Antonio Conte has put together. Their lead is back to 10 points and who can foresee a collapse when Eden Hazard is shimmering with this kind of menace and everyone around him is going about their business with such supreme confidence?
Chelsea now have 30 more points than the corresponding stage last season and the only minor irritation for Conte was the injury time goal from Manuel Lanzini that briefly gave West Ham hope of an improbable feat of escapology.
For Chelsea, however, that was only a minor irritation. Hazard had opened the scoring with a classy breakaway strike and Diego Costa’s 18th goal of the season, early in the second half, left an air of inevitability over the rest of the evening. Chelsea threatened all night with their quick, high-quality counter-attacking. They do it better than any other team in England and in those moments, with Hazard driving forward and Pedro adding his own stylish touches, it was thrilling to see. Jose Mourinho likes to say his old team operate with defensive tactics but, in reality, there is much more to Chelsea than that. They sit back and then they spring forward.
And Conte has insisted he has complete trust in his players not to squander their lead at the top.
“I must have confidence in my players,” said the Chelsea manager.
“Until now, we have deserved to stay on top of the table. For sure, it won’t be easy to stay there because Tottenham and City, also Liverpool, are there. “To see Arsenal drop three points and Manchester United drop two points (this weekend) was very important because the games are starting to be fewer, but this league will still be really tough until the end. I listen to the other coaches of the other teams, and they trust (themselves) to win. And it’s right to have this ambition.
“It’s important for us to know the others have this ambition so that we keep our own anger and will to fight and stay on top of the league. I trust my players to do this because they are showing me great commitment not only in games, but during the week: in every training session, great will to work and improve, to improve our work. I trust them. Absolutely.”
Those sentiments were echoed by the West Ham manager, Slaven Bilic.
“There are enough points available if they slip, and every game will be difficult for them,” he said.
“It will not be an easy ride, but they are not going to become casual. That’s 100 per cent. They look very, very serious. I think I can see them staying on top with the quality they have, but also with how solid they are and how concentrated they are. They look in good shape. “There are many good teams in the Premier League with attacking football, flair and individual class. But from all these teams, Chelsea look the most solid. They always defend with numbers. They always defend with five and two holding midfielders, minimum. So seven players. And, because they are really fit, they make that offensive transition their main offensive weapon. They’re 10 points clear at the top. This is why.”