BOURNEMOUTH – Eden Hazard quietened the debate surrounding Antonio Conte’s future with the second-half goal that secured a 1-0 win at Bournemouth on Saturday and maintained champions Chelsea’s hold on fourth spot, nine points adrift of Premier League leaders Manchester City.
Chelsea manager Conte had reacted angrily to suggestions in the build-up to this game that fellow Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti was being lined up as his successor amid talk of dissent among the London club’s squad.
Those concerns were stilled as Chelsea showed enough resolve to overcome a determined Bournemouth side whose display suggested they are capable of moving out of the bottom three, with Hazard’s 51st-minute goal proving the difference between the two sides.
Conte’s outburst came after a positive week for Chelsea that began with an impressive comeback to beat Watford, and continued with the midweek League Cup defeat of another Premier League side in Everton.
Had Chelsea failed to recover after falling behind to Marco Silva’s Watford, their prospects of retaining the title would have receded even further.
That only increased the pressure on Chelsea against a Bournemouth side also boasting back-to-back victories in league and cup.
Victory at Stoke City was only the Cherries’ second league win of the season, while they set up a League Cup quarter-final with Chelsea after beating second-tier Middlesbrough.
Conte’s selection against south coast side Bournemouth suggested he had one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League tie away to Roma, with captain Gary Cahill on the substitutes’ bench.
Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe, meanwhile, was able to recall Jermain Defoe after the striker had been forced to sit out the last two games with a hamstring problem.
It was the home side who carved out the first clear opportunity in the 17th minute, only for Benik Afobe to take the wrong option before eventually seeing a shot deflected wide when a second chance came his way.
That proved a rare chance for Bournemouth, who found themselves forced to defend against a growing wave of Chelsea pressure.
They didn’t help themselves when goalkeeper Asmir Begovic scuffed a clearance straight to Hazard.
The Belgian set up Alvaro Morata 12 yards from goal but the Spain international pulled his shot wide.
Tiemoue Bakayoko then directed a free header straight at Begovic, shortly before Morata thought he had made up for his earlier miss when he followed up David Luiz’s shot only to have the effort ruled out because Cesar Azpilicueta had strayed offside.
Hazard made the breakthrough in the sixth minute after the break.
Morata did well to fend off two challenges in the middle of the pitch before chipping a pass towards Hazard that Simon Francis should have cut out.
The Bournemouth defender failed to reach the ball, handing Hazard a clear run on goal that was capped by an angled finish that exposed Begovic’s failure to cover his near post.