Chelsea re-establish 10-point buffer with minimum of fuss

West Ham score late goal through Manuel Lanzini after Hazard and Costa put Blues in control

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard celebrates scoring their first goal with team-mates as a fan invades the pitch during the Premier League game against West Ham  at London Stadium. Photograph:  Tony O’Brien/Action Images via Reuters/Livepic

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard celebrates scoring their first goal with team-mates as a fan invades the pitch during the Premier League game against West Ham at London Stadium. Photograph: Tony O’Brien/Action Images via Reuters/Livepic

 

West Ham 1 Chelsea 2

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 that Antonio Conte’s team might be vulnerable when there is barely a shred of evidence to indicate this brilliantly functional team might yet be capable of unravelling.

Their latest victory was just another measure of their durability bearing in mind it came after a weekend in which the two nearest teams, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, had won convincingly.

Another team in Chelsea’s position might have wobbled. Not this side, though, as they re-established their 10-point lead. When Eden Hazard is shimmering with this kind of menace, with David Luiz supreme in defence and N’Golo Kanté excelling in midfield, the most demoralising aspect for the other teams at the top of the table is that there is no sign of obvious weakness.

In the process, Chelsea have now reached a position where they have 30 more points than the corresponding stage last season, winning here through a superb first-half goal from Hazard and another from Diego Costa early in the second half. Conte will be annoyed Manuel Lanzini’s stoppage-time goal briefly left them in danger of an improbably feat of escapology from West Ham but that, ultimately, was only a minor irritation.

José Mourinho would like to spread the notion that his old club operate with a defensive mindset. And, yes, Chelsea play with the kind of structure that makes it difficult for the opposition to break them down. Yet the truth is their tactics are based on quick, high-quality counter-attacking.

To put it into context, Conte’s men had not managed a single noteworthy attack in the opening 25 minutes. Andy Carroll had quickly set about making his presence felt at the spearhead of West Ham’s attack and the league leaders were struggling to exert any kind of real authority. Then Kanté, a master of the dirty work, intercepted a stray pass close to his own penalty area and in a blur of speed and movement Chelsea were away.

In the following eight seconds, the ball moved 75 yards before it finished in the West Ham goal. Hazard’s one-two with Pedro was weighted perfectly and in the course of three devastating passes the home side had been split down the middle. West Ham had nine players forward when Robert Snodgrass’s pass was cut out and, at the end of this breathless move, it was a wonderful touch of composure from Hazard to swerve round the oncoming goalkeeper, Darren Randolph, before sliding his shot into the exposed net.

When Chelsea are so accomplished at catching teams on the break perhaps it was reckless on West Ham’s part to commit so many men into attack. But the goal was far from the only occasion when the speed and directness of Hazard and Pedro threatened on the counter-attack. A decent argument could be made that West Ham should have operated with a touch more conservatism rather than leaving themselves so vulnerable.

They could probably be forgiven for feeling emboldened about the way they started the match. Carroll was left with a bloodied face, having clashed heads with Victor Moses, on the first occasion when one of his team-mates tried to pick him out in the penalty area. Yet he was not deterred and, with the game goalless, a succession of crosses was aimed his way. Briefly, Chelsea looked in danger. Then, over those eight seconds, everything changed.

Chelsea were the more rounded side from that point onwards and might have scored again before half-time after another breakaway finished with Costa narrowly missing Hazard’s cross, Moses firing in a shot that ricocheted off Aaron Cresswell and Pedro’s follow-up effort being turned away by Randolph.

West Ham had lost all their early momentum and, five minutes into the second half, Costa’s 18th goal of the season doubled the visitors’ lead. This one came from Cesc Fàbregas’s corner and the inability of anyone in claret and blue to head the ball away inside the six-yard area. Pedro Obiang went up for the ball, in close proximity to Carroll, but succeeded only in flicking the ball on and Costa charged in to score off his thigh.

Maybe the complexion of the night would have changed had Moses not been handily positioned to turn away a goal-bound shot from Sofiane Feghouli that had eluded Chelsea’s goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, just after the hour. Yet West Ham now had the dilemma of needing a goal to find a way back into the contest while also knowing that if they pushed too many men forwards it would be playing into Chelsea’s hands.

By the time Lanzini fired in their goal it was the third minute of stoppage time and the final whistle sounded.

(Guardian service)

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