LONDON - None of Antonio Conte’s 28 victories as Chelsea manager will have given him more pleasure than this one.
Stoke gave his team an almighty physical examination that they passed like champions, captain Gary Cahill making amends for conceding a penalty by lashing home the 87th-minute winner.
Conte hugged each of his players at the end while the travelling support chanted ‘We’re going to win the League’.
Diego Costa deserved special praise for resisting the provocation that came his way. Despite an early caution, he stayed on the field but Stoke’s Phil Bardsley did not, sent off in injury-time for a kick on Pedro when already booked.
Chelsea look like one of those complete sides who can out-football teams at times but also stand up and scrap when they have to. And it was all orchestrated by their Duracell Italian manager who found a way to win without the injured Eden Hazard and celebrated Cahill’s winner by swinging his arms on the top of the dug-out.
Cahill said afterwards: ‘When you make a mistake, although I felt it was a soft penalty, you want to make it right somehow so I am delighted to get the goal.
‘Me and the team have shown character time and time again this season. It was exactly how we expected the game, it was going to be tough. We kept trying to play, we didn’t want to get sucked into a battle which would have probably favoured them. The manager kept telling us to play our football.’
Conte loosened up when asked about the title with Chelsea entering their final 10 matches.
‘For sure, this was an important win because it was against a strong team in a stadium with a great atmosphere. Very hot, molto caldo, we say in Italy!’
The Londoners have won their last five in all competitions and are unbeaten in 12. It’s seems impossible Chelsea will be caught. The bookies don’t think so, making them 25-1 ON favourites.
Despite Hazard’s absence with a minor muscular complaint, it seemed business as usual after 13 minutes when Marko Arnautovic fouled overlapping wing-back Marcos Alonso. With players queuing up in the middle for a cross, Willian drilled his free-kick to the near post with such venom that goalkeeper Lee Grant fisted the ball down into the ground and it span in. What followed were physical battles all over the pitch.
David Luiz was dazed in a clash of heads with Jonathan Walters and later winded by Saido Berahino, Bardsley booked for a nasty kick on Costa’s knee and the Chelsea striker also cautioned for fending off Bruno Martins Indi with his forearm.
Stoke boss Mark Hughes denied Stoke had targeted Costa. ‘He probably targeted us,’ he quipped.
Stoke had a goal ruled out through Indi Martins because of a Berahino push on Cesar Azpilicueta on the other side of the six-yard box, but it was only a temporary stay of execution for Chelsea.
After 38 minutes, Walters dashed goalside of the defence to try and meet an Erik Pieters free-kick and Cahill gave him a nudge in the back that invited the Irishman to fall. Walters grabbed the ball and smashed his penalty into the roof of the net.
Costa spent the rest of the half chuntering his displeasure but Conte must have had a few wise words for him at half-time because he was far more focused after that despite repeated digs from Ryan Shawcross.
‘It’s normal for teams to try and make a player angry so he is ready to commit another foul,’ said Conte. ‘But the great news is Diego is showing great discipline. Honestly, I have to be pleased with his discipline.’
Chelsea had the better second-half chances, with Conte switching to a flat back four in the final 20 minutes in a bid to secure maximum points.
Luiz nearly caught out Grant with a free-kick that bounced off the goalkeeper’s chest and Alonso hit the crossbar with a curling free-kick. Even Pedro was getting stuck in physically as Chelsea thrived on the challenge. Then with three minutes left, Luiz won a header at a corner and when Pieters cleared weakly to Cahill, the defender thumped his finish into the roof of the net.
Chelsea celebrated as if they had won the League, as they surely have now. Ruben Loftus-Cheek nearly added a third, denied by Grant, before Bardsley was dismissed for his swipe at Pedro.
Naturally, Hughes was disappointed at coming so close to another creditable point, having drawn at Manchester City in their previous game.
‘When you get to that stage of the game, it’s hard to take,’ he said. ‘Chelsea would have been more than pleased with the draw. You saw by their reaction how delighted they were to win.’
He also felt a couple of decisions went Chelsea’s way: ‘Cahill might have been fortunate to stay on the pitch for the penalty as he was last man. For our goal that was chalked off, there was a little push from Saido but he (Azpilicueta) would never have got near the ball.’
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