Mar. 16, 2017
West Ham 1 Chelsea 2: Blues move ten points clear after devastating counter-attacking display
?Of all the assignments set for Antonio Conte's Chelsea this season, the completion of this particular task may not have been the most glamorous nor spectacular but once again showed why they are well on their way to their second Premier League title in three seasons.
In many ways, Chelsea's route to the title this time around is following a trend set by their most recent success in 2015. Jose Mourinho's team were often criticised for their pragmatic style and, while it cannot be said that this team are dull to watch, the ruthless, title-winning mode has been switched on.
The team has been in this position before. The manager has been in this position before. Collectively, they certainly know how to win football matches.
This, too, was further evidence that this team has completely bought into what Conte is looking to achieve at Stamford Bridge, none more so than Cesc Fabregas who has worked his way back into the fold, reinventing his game to satisfy his demanding coach enough to be rewarded with a starting role.
Goals came either side of half-time through Eden Hazard and Diego Costa respectively, on a night where Chelsea's marvellous ability in transition really came to the fore. They were a constant thorn in the side of their opponents on the break, with this just a number
Manuel Lanzini — who was arguably the Hammers most dangerous player on the night — pulled one back in stoppage time, but could not spark the unthinkable and deny Chelsea all three points.
A comfortable ending makes it easy to forget that West Ham were victors of the early battle, zipping the ball around the immaculate London Stadium turf with the sort of confidence required of a side looking to go toe to toe with the runaway Premier League leaders. With that crisp passing came variety; early crosses into the box from Robert Snodrgass and Sofiane Feghouli were an obvious ploy.
David Luiz's nervy clearance from a low Robert Snodgrass cross highlighted Chelsea's consciousness to the threat of Andy Carroll early on. It wasn't always pretty, but the Hammers were aggressive and took the game to their opponents right from the first whistle.
Despite the early domination, it's testament to Chelsea's defence that at no point was Thibaut Courtois called into action and those of the east London variety in this capital clash were behind in the blink of an eye. Like champions so often do, Chelsea flicked a switch and turned on the style before their opponents could muster a response.
The opener came when the home side were unsuccessful in their attempts to play short from a wide free-kick and, almost inevitably, it was N'Golo Kante who won possession. He released Hazard who glided forward with pace, whilst still having the composure and awareness to find Pedro.
A swift return ball from the Spaniard saw Hazard gifted the chance to face Darren Randolph one on one which he took with grace, rounding the 'keeper before sliding the ball home.
For as much as the opener relaxed Chelsea, it unsettled the Hammers in equal measure, whose early swagger in possession seemed to be drained from them. The away side were now firmly in control, dictating the tempo to a much slower, more tranquil pace; something Slaven Bilic had clearly hoped to avoid with his aggressive tactics.
Just five minutes before the break, West Ham had their best opportunity of the first half. Lanzini dropped deep to collect possession and played a give and go with Mark Noble, but failed to hit the target from the edge of the box when he really should've at tested Courtois at the very least.
Lanzini's wastefulness was almost punished seconds later when Jose Fonte was caught ball watching, allowing Hazard a free run in behind from Gary Cahill's pass. The Belgian's low cross inadvertently found Victor Moses, who was denied by a block from former teammate Aaron Cresswell, before Randolph's strong fists palmed away Pedro's following effort on the half-volley.
The Hammers did at least learn their lesson from the first goal, this time recovering quickly enough to deny another Chelsea counter from their own free-kick. A swift counter-attack is essential for a side who look to absorb pressure the way Chelsea do, but for all their threat on the break, by the time the second half kicked off optimism remained amongst the home ranks.
Blind faith, you might call it. Fabregas' corner was flicked on by Cheikhou Kouyate at the front post and — perhaps due to his lack of involvement in the game to that point — Costa went completely unnoticed in the box and tapped in for a typical predatory strike. In the context of the game, both the timing and manner of the second Chelsea goal appeared to take the wind from West Ham sails, with it unlikely that the visitors would throw away a two-goal lead and the home supporters knew it.
Feghouli and Fonte did at least raise hopes ten minutes later, causing a rare period of anarchy in the Chelsea box. The former's snapshot was dominantly dismissed by Courtois, while the latter really should've tested the Belgian once more with his wayward header.
Hazard's quality was there for all to see once more as he toyed with Fonte and Obiang before finding Costa, who was denied a brace by an excellent save to his right low down from Randolph. A ludicrous, deft touch from the Belgian's back to Kante in the build-up to the counter-attack brought back memories of the PFA Player of the Year Hazard from 2015.
Lanzini's consolation came through neat work from substitute Andre Ayew, and West Ham's no.10 made no mistake from eight yards out, firing inside the far post. But, just as the empty seats plaguing the London Stadium at the time of the goal suggested, the result was never in question.
Conte ultimately shut the game down in the final twenty minutes by introducing Kurt Zouma and Nemanja Matic, while Willian's arrival gave Hazard a deserved ovation from the away Chelsea supporters, whom it must be noted were of far less trouble to the London Stadium stewards than in their previous visit.
Comfort in the stands and on the pitch for Chelsea, then, as their lead remains at a healthy ten points with eleven games to go.