Chelsea’s seemingly unstoppable march towards the Premier League title continued on Saturday afternoon, as Pedro and Diego Costa both scored late in the second-half to consign Swansea City to an unfortunate 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge.
The champions-elect were however made to work far harder for their victory than they would have liked, after Fernando Llorente’s thumping header on the stroke of first-time cancelled out Cesc Fabregas’s early goal.
Swansea took a point off Chelsea at the beginning of the season in a rare highlight under the management of Francesco Guidolin and, for the majority of the second-half, it looked as though the relegation-threatened team would deny the league leaders once again.
But shorty after a very credible Swansea penalty appeal was ignored by referee Neil Swarbrick, Pedro burst forward for Chelsea and curled a shot towards goal. Lukasz Fabiański should have kept it out; instead the ball slipped inexplicably under his body. Swansea, in search of an unlikely equaliser, then conceded a third when Diego Costa volleyed home from close range, stretching Chelsea's lead at the top to a surely insurmountable eleven points.
Chelsea have, however, been eager to prove that they are taking nothing for granted in this most one-sided of title races and they started the game at a suitably rapid pace. Pedro struck narrowly over from an early corner and Fabregas went close with a low shot, which ricocheted wide.
Swansea — playing their first match in two weeks — stuck diligently to their game-plan, repeatedly flinging long-balls forward in the direction of Spanish international Fernando Llorente in an attempt to by-pass Chelsea’s talented, but tiny, midfield. And in a warning sign that ultimately went unheeded, Federico Fernandez took advantage of some sloppy set-piece marking to go close from a corner.
It was with some cruel irony, then, that Chelsea’s opening goal came as a direct consequence of Swansea keeping the ball on the ground in a rare soiree forward. Tom Carroll, so impressive since signing from Tottenham Hotspur in January, was the man responsible for conceding possession, losing the ball in midfield and then failing to atone for his error with a despairing lunge.
Hazard punished Swansea: exchanging cute one-passes with Diego Costa he spotted Pedro in space on his right-hand side. He continued his run, but Pedro instead pulled it back for Fabregas, whose first touch to control the ball was a little ungainly, but whose second to score was sublime. The goal came on his 300th Premier League appearance and Fabianski had no chance of keeping the close-range shot out.
The Spaniard should have had a second moments later. Victor Moses escaped the attentions of Swansea’s other January arrival, Martin Olsson, and dropped an inch-perfect cross into the path of Fabregas, whose volleyed effort was struck from a similar distance to his goal. This time however Fabianski was equal to the danger, throwing himself through the air to tip the shot wide.
In the technical area Clement stood largely impassive as Chelsea began to increase the pressure in search of a second. In stark contrast Conte animatedly waved his arms around throughout, standing so far forward in his technical area that at times it looked almost as if he was attempting to usurp Marcos Alonso's place on the left-wing.
He took a large step backward just moments before the interval however, as Pedro — largely restricted to a role on the fringes with Hazard very clearly taking centre stage — suddenly burst into life out wide. Hugging the left-touchline in a powerful burst forward, he cut inside and made mincemeat of Swansea's ragged defence only for his eventual shot to be deflected clear.
In the face of such overwhelming pressure a Swansea equaliser looked unlikely but Chelsea’s players, unlike their manager, were guilty of a lapse in intensity with half-time in sight, during which Kante conceded an utterly necessary free-kick. Predictably, Sigurdsson went long, and Fernando Llorente shrugged off Victor Moses on the edge of the box, heading powerfully past a despairing Courtois.
Stung into action, Chelsea started the second-half much as they had started the first: aggressively, with Hazard rarely to be found off the ball. His smart cut-back very nearly saw the superb Fabregas score his second — but his first-time shot from the edge of the box cannoned off the bar — and a similar low pass flashed dangerously across the face of goal moments later.
Chelsea’s desire to flood forward led to opportunities at both ends, with both sides having very credible penalty appeals turned down within a minute of one another by an unmoved Swarbrick. First Sigurdsson was incandescent that Azpilicueta was not penalised for handling in the box, then the home crowd were whipped into a fury when Diego Costa was shoved over in the box with recrimination. On reflection, both teams have a right to feel aggrieved.
"I thought it was a penalty and it doesn't matter whether they should have had one up the other end immediately after, because it should have been a penalty to us first," an aggrieved Clement commented after the match.
The vital second goal came just moments later for Chelsea, as Swansea’s brave resistance was finally ended. Pedro picked up the ball and scampered towards the edge of the box where he shot more in hope than expectation. But Fabianski inexplicably allowed the ball to skid under his body, handing Chelsea all three points. He bore no responsibility for Diego Costa’s late third, but by that point, the game had already been lost.
Chelsea (3-4-2-1): Courtois, Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill, Moses (Zouma '85), Kante, Fabregas, Alonso, Pedro (Matic '76), Costa, Hazard (Willian '85).
Subs: Begovic, Zouma, Loftus-Cheek, Matic, Willian, Batshuayi, Terry.
Swansea: Fabianski, Naughton, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Fer, Cork, Carroll (Ayew '76), Routledge (Narsingh '81), Llorente, Sigurdsson.
Subs: Ayew, Amat, Britton, Borja Baston, Nordfeldt, Rangel, Narsingh.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire)