Chelsea on the brink as Middlesbrough’s fate confirmed
Antonio Conte’s side now a win away from the title after Stamford Bridge procession
Antonio Conte celebrates Nemanja Matic’s goal as Chelsea eased past Middlesbrough 3-0. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters
It was a rare to have a night when two teams had such contrasting stories at the final whistle. For Chelsea, the mathematics are simple now and surely nobody can think the celebrations at the end were premature. Antonio Conte’s side will be the champions of England with one more win and they looked absolutely determined here to play in that manner against a Middlesbrough side that quietly drops into the Championship, relegated after only one season back in the top division.
If everything goes according to plan, Chelsea will wrap up everything when they play at West Bromwich Albion on Friday. Alternatively, it might come down to their next home game against Watford the following Monday – if, that is, Tottenham Hotspur can beat Manchester United the previous day. Chelsea have a seven-point lead with three games to go and the chances of Conte’s side unravelling from this position must rank somewhere between minimal and non-existent.
They will be deserving champions and their latest victory was typical of the domination that has brought them to this point. Chelsea did not have a single period of the match when they lost control. They were 2-0 ahead at half-time, courtesy of Diego Costa’s calm strike and a Marcos Alonso goal that deflected in off Brad Guzan, and Nemanja Matic’s second-half finish was scant reward really for their near-unremitting pressure after the interval.
Middlesbrough, meanwhile, looked what they are: a team that has drifted aimlessly towards relegation. This was the 17th time this season they have failed to score.
They have not won at Stamford Bridge since Jack Charlton was manager in March 1975 and that long run was never likely to be threatened bearing in mind they have not beaten a single side in the top half of the league all season. Middlesbrough’s only away win came at Sunderland in August and, if anything, it was a surprise Chelsea did not treat themselves to even more goals.
The first cries of “Are you watching Tottenham?” could be heard after Costa had slipped the ball through Guzan’s legs to open the scoring midway through the first half. Middlesbrough were obliging opponents for a team with Chelsea’s ambitions and there was never any part of the night when the champions-elect conspicuously missed N’Golo Kanté, absent with a thigh injury on the day he was confirmed as the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year. Cesc Fàbregas fitted seamlessly into midfield, passing the ball with all his elegance. Kanté deserves the season’s individual honours if he can keep this man out of the team.
As for Conte, the volume was never louder than when the crowd stood to acclaim the man whose team have now reached 84 points, three more than Leicester managed to win the league and, incredibly, 36 higher than the corresponding stage for Chelsea last season. Conte was still stalking the touchline, screaming his orders and reminding us that the Italians are masters of the hand gesture even when it was absolutely clear it was going to be another good night. His team have won 15 out of their 17 home games in the league and, with Conte in charge, it was always difficult to imagine they might allow even a hint of complacency to creep in.
On the contrary, barely 70 seconds had elapsed before Alonso had struck the crossbar with his first attempt at night, surging forward on one of many forward runs from his left wing-back role. Alonso tried again not long afterwards and this time his shot flew wide. His third effort, after 34 minutes, was also going across the goalmouth but Guzan had left his goal-line. The ball struck the inside of the goalkeeper’s leg and flew into the net for Chelsea’s second goal.
Guzan had a difficult night but, in fairness, he was not alone when it came to Steve Agnew’s players. Fábio da Silva, Middlesbrough’s Brazilian right-back, had let Alonso run past him and the same player was also partly to blame for the first goal. Fàbregas had clipped the ball into the penalty area and Fábio, stretching, tried to volley it away only to turn it into Costa’s path, leaving Guzan hopelessly exposed. It was Costa’s 20th league goal of the season, equalling his best-ever total for Chelsea.
More than anything, Chelsea looked as though they were enjoying themselves. They began the second half exactly where they had left off: looking for more goals. Pedro had skimmed another shot against the crossbar within 30 seconds. Alonso spent long parts of the night playing as an out-and-out winger. Eden Hazard shimmered with menace and Fàbregas added his refined touches. There was no let-up for Middlesbrough but it would be harsh to say they demonstrated why they had won only once in their 18 league games since Christmas. The truth is not many sides could cope when Chelsea are playing with this drive and motivation.
It was a masterful performance and, after 65 minutes, Conte was off on another of his victory runs. Fàbregas played the decisive pass again and this time Matic chested the ball down, spun away from the nearest defender and lashed in a right-foot shot.