There may be a question mark against the future of their leading scorer but at the King Power Stadium this evening Chelsea looked anything but a team in crisis as they produced an impressively clinical display to defeat Leicester City and regain their seven-point lead at the Premier League summit.
Chelsea had gone into this game without the 14-goal Diego Costa, missing after his midweek row with a club fitness coach and manager Antonio Conte, and with their advantage cut to four points by Tottenham’s lunchtime victory over West Bromwich Albion.
Their pursuers will have hoped for a wobble but instead Conte’s men showed their mettle.
Wing-back Marcos Alonso scored a goal early in each half and Pedro added a third as Chelsea delivered an impressive statement of intent in their first league outing since defeat at Tottenham Hotspur 10 days ago.
Yes, in the final third, they missed their big striker’s presence but their unity and focus was not found wanting. This is a very different Chelsea from that which rolled over feebly in their last league fixture at the King Power Stadium 13 months ago – a 2-1 defeat that provided the last act of Jose Mourinho’s reign on a night the Portuguese accused his players of betraying him.
Chelsea are arguably facing their biggest crisis since then with Costa reportedly pondering a £30m salary in China, though Conte played a straight bat when asked about the striker in his pre-match television interview. “On Tuesday, Diego stopped training with a pain in his back and then in the week he didn’t train with us,” said the Italian.
As in the only previous league fixture Costa had missed this season, the 3-0 victory over Bournemouth, Eden Hazard operated as the Londoners’ central attacker, flanked by Willian and Pedro, and the Belgian was immediately influential in the creation of the opening goal.
From Cesar Azpilicueta’s far-post ball into the box, Pedro knocked the back across, Hazard laid it off and Alonso swept it imperiously into the far corner.
Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri had matched Chelsea’s system with three at the back – Christian Fuchs joining Robert Huth and Wes Morgan in the central defence – and Marc Albrighton and Ben Chilwell operating as wing-backs. The final result would suggest Ranieri’s tactical tinkering did not work though they might have had a goal inside the first minute when Ahmed Musa wrong-footed Alonso but was denied by Thibaut Courtois at the near post. It would be the best chance of the match for the defending champions, now winless in six league matches.
In the tenth minute the King Power Stadium was lit up by the lights of thousands of mobile phones – a salute to Alan Birchenhall, the Seventies favourite-turned-matchday cheerleader here who suffered a heart attack on Thursday. It was Chelsea who illuminated the contest in the second half as they found another gear.
Six minutes after the restart, Alonso doubled the lead when Willian’s partially cleared free-kick reached the Spaniard on the edge of the box and his drive flew past Kasper Schmeichel via a deflection off Wes Morgan.
Alonso almost completed a hat-trick with a terrific volley which flew an inch wide and Pedro showed the confidence coursing back through this Chelsea team in the lead-up to the third goal. Collecting a pass from Victor Moses, he delivered a brilliant back-heel touch to release Willian on the left side of the box and when the Brazilian’s attempted chip flew into the air off Schmeichel, Pedro nodded the ball over the line.
Not bad for a team in the midst of a "crisis".
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