"Football is also about results." Pep Guardiola uttered those words with the resignation of a man who knew his race was run. On Wednesday at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea once again demonstrated why they stand head and shoulders above everyone else in the Premier League this season. The side’s ability to force their way through games is an enviable attribute. The football has been swashbuckling at times but it is Chelsea’s domineering disposition which has put points on the board.
There have been different challengers to the Blues supremacy this season but all of them have been united by their failure to manage the tough phases. Manchester City dominated possession at the Bridge but failed to manifest control over the proceedings. On the same night, Liverpool once again succumbed to their familiar defensive frailties as Bournemouth came from behind to steal a point. It was a stark reminder of why we do not have a closer title race in the Premier League this time around.
There is, of course, the not-so-small matter of Tottenham Hotspur. Mauricio Pochettino’s side has grown in stature as the season has progressed. The stunning comeback win over Swansea once again shone light on a team which is not dogged by the diffidence of old. ‘Spursy’, a popular term which speaks of the club’s reputation for choking in tense moments, may have to be forgotten for a while.
Yet, the growing pains experienced by Spurs in the opening half of the campaign means that Chelsea still have a comfortable lead at the top. Not that Antonio Conte is resting easy.
“In Italy, it’s easier for me to find the right words to motivate my players. I am studying English but I’m not at a great level to give great motivational talks. But I try. I push sometimes with words, sometimes with my hands. Numbers now … six wins. Six wins. There is a long way to go.”
Conte, whose obsession with victory is frequently documented, knows the job is not done until it is. He famously did not sleep for five days when Juventus lost the Serie A trophy on the final day of the 1999-2000 season. But it would be unwise to bet on a repeat.
On Wednesday night, a scrappy first half was followed by a serene display. The pace was to Chelsea’s liking as the players buckled down to ensure City did not get a look-in. There was the odd chance for the visiting side but a sustained spell of pressure barely came to pass.
This was in contrast to the first half when City played with the desire of a side looking to right its wrongs. However, letting the momentum slip in unlikely moments has been a familiar failing. Guardiola maintained after the match that his team had been the better side, as he did in December when Chelsea won 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium. He had a point back then but not on Wednesday night.
Guardiola admitted after the latest defeat that “in the boxes, Chelsea are better than us.” But it was the gaping hole in the central midfield where the latest encounter was settled. For all the money spent by City last summer, the club has been unable to find a presence who can assert himself on the proceedings. Fernandinho offers defensive comforts but it is in the transitions where the Citizens are often found lacking. Guardiola, the man whose sides were renowned for their mastery of the transition, is still looking for players who can articulate his vision. City do a decent train wreck impression, when the ball moves from the offence-to-defence phase.
The wreckage stands at six league defeats this term, an unprecedented failure for Guardiola. Never before had he lost to the same manager in one campaign. There is no shame in being bested by Conte but the 14-point gap between the two teams is indicative of who has adapted better to the strains of the Premier League. It cannot be overlooked that the Italian manager was forced to pick up the ruins of last season’s disaster. The transformation has been marvellous.
Perhaps, nobody has represented the change in Chelsea’s fortunes better than Eden Hazard. His swaggering display on Wednesday was another reminder of what he can achieve when a manager lets his talent flourish. The first goal, albeit aided by a slight deflection, was a neat illustration of his ability to anticipate the game quicker than others. A botched penalty was rescued later as well when Hazard responded the fastest to a rebound opportunity.
City had found themselves level in the first half after a lapse of concentration by Thibaut Courtois but once Chelsea went ahead the second time, the host drew on their powers of doggedness. There was to be no repeat of the clash in December which was played at breakneck pace. In fact, Chelsea’s second half-display was reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s first reign at the club. Conte has instilled the same discipline into the current side. While the odd blip may still arrive, the procession towards the league title is likely to continue untrammelled.
Unlike the previous meeting between these two sides in the league, this was not one of the games of the season. But Conte has other worries to keep himself busy. The maverick manager is running a countdown on his fingers. Six wins left. It is about the results now.
Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017 14:13 PM