Chelsea crowned champions of England after late West Brom win
Michy Batshuayi the unlikely hero as Antonio Conte’s secure title at the Hawthorns
Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were crowned champions after a 1-0 win at West Brom. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters
When the decisive moment arrived there were a few moments when Antonio Conte gave the impression he might actually run all the away from the touchline to join in the victory scrum in front of the goal. Chelsea’s manager made it half a dozen yards on to the pitch before checking back but it was not long before the celebrations started for real and his first season in charge of this team was assured of its happy ending.
For Chelsea, it was the moment that confirmed their fifth Premier League in the last 12 years and the only downside of a glorious night for the new champions was the trouble that broke out in the home stands after the substitute Michy Batshuayi had delivered the telling blow 82 minutes into a match when Conte’s men had to show all their perseverance.
They have played a lot better at times this season but there can be no doubt they have been the best team in the country and it has never been a bad trait for a team at the top of the league to play below their best but still manage to win. Batshuayi’s late contribution gave them a 10-point lead at the top of the table, with Tottenham Hotspur having three games left, and they were jubilant scenes at the end.
Two of Chelsea’s recent managers, André Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo, lost their jobs after jarring defeats at this ground. That, however, felt like a long time ago as the Chelsea fans started early with their victory songs in the Smethwick End. The followers of Conte’s team have a new addition to their songbook – “Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again” – and the fact it was aired so lustily within the opening few minutes suggested none of the people in that stand seriously imagined there could be a late twist.
Chelsea are just too powerful for that to be a realistic proposition and the pattern of the game was quickly established. Conte’s men began like a team in a hurry. N’Golo Kanté was restricted to a place on the bench, on his way back from a groin injury, but Cesc Fàbregas is an elegant replacement and provided some of the night’s more refined touches. Eden Hazard and Pedro were quick, elusive opponents. Victor Moses, a renascent figure under Conte’s guidance, made it a difficult night for James McClean on West Brom’s left and Marcos Alonso showed again why he has become such an important player.
At various times this season Chelsea have been depicted as a counterattacking team – defence-orientated, if you listen to José Mourinho – but they can actually adapt their game in many ways and this was one of the occasions when they quickly made it clear they would spend large parts of the night in opposition territory.
A reasonable argument could also be made that this was a good time to visit The Hawthorns given that West Brom have been in the worst form of any Premier League side since the beginning of April, taking only two points from their previous six games and setting an unwanted club record of failing to score five times in a row. Indeed, this is actually a common theme of Tony Pulis’s managerial career in the top division. He has won only six games out of the previous 44 since his teams have reached 40 points and they went into this game on the back of three successive 1-0 defeats at home.
All the same, it was a typically stout West Brom performance that caused grievous damage to Tottenham’s title hopes with a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane last season and, though their recent results have been poor, there were passages of play that served as a reminder why they have been locked in eighth – the best of the rest – since New Year’s Eve. Salomón Rondón’s first touch of the night, barely 20 seconds in, was a loping header that Thibaut Courtois had to turn over the crossbar. West Brom might yet beat their highest-ever points tally of 49 in a Premier League season and the home side finished the first half strongly once they had survived a 20-minute spell when Chelsea set up camp in opposition territory.
The closest Chelsea came in the first half was a shot from Pedro that took a deflection to wrongfoot Ben Foster in West Brom’s goal only to roll just past the post. For all their possession, however, Chelsea needed to show more penetration in attack. Foster turned away Moses’ diagonal shot with a one-handed save early in the second half and soon afterwards Diego Costa hooked a volley too close to the goalkeeper. Fàbregas was next to take aim and, once again, West Brom had to withstand a flurry of activity in and around their penalty area.
The problem for Chelsea was finding either the killer pass or a decisive shot against a team that spent parts of the night with a defensive line of six players. Chelsea certainly did not play anywhere near their best and the shot from Hazard that went out for a throw-in midway through the second half might well have been his least distinguished moment of the season. A couple of minutes later, Rondón broke clear but could not find the right finish. Then it was Nacer Chadli’s turn with another clear opportunity and, suddenly, Chelsea were looking unusually ragged at the back. Ultimately, though, it did not matter. César Azpilicueta delivered the cross from the right. Batshuayi poked his shot beyond Foster and Chelsea, once again, were champions.