CHELSEA GO SIX POINTS CLEAR AFTER EDGING PAST SUNDERLAND 1-0
What a difference a year makes. What a difference a manager makes. Exactly 12 months ago to the day Chelsea lost at Leicester as their shambolic title defence plunged a new low. It was too much for owner Roman Abramovich and, by the end of week, Jose Mourinho was gone.
Compare that mess to the Chelsea of today – six points clear at the top of the Premier League and guaranteed to be at the summit come Christmas Day, a position from which they have won the title on four previous occasions.
What Mourinho struggled to do, Antonio Conte makes easy. This was a 10th straight victory; five more and they’ll have a new Premier League record, surpassing Arsenal’s run of 2002 (Sorry Arsenal fans).
And Conte said: ‘It’s fantastic to win 10 in a row in this league, because it is very tough. You have to fight in every game. Our players deserve this for their commitment and work-rate, every day and in games.
‘But I prefer not to look at the table. The league did not finish today.’
There is a calmness and authority about Conte, much like his side. While Mourinho had lost the dressing-room, the Italian has every one of his players performing at a level unrecognisable from last season.
He even lets them enjoy a post-game beer. And it is fair to say supporters are drunk on their success right now.
Yes, they needed a fine last-minute save from Thibaut Courtois to deny Patrick van Aanholt, but this was impressive.
Cesc Fabregas was one of the players at odds with Mourinho but he was the match-winner here with a first-half strike which oozed class.
‘I’m very happy for Cesc,’ added Conte. ‘He’s a great example for the other players. It’s only his third start but he has shown great commitment.’
For Sunderland and David Moyes, meanwhile, this 11th defeat of the season came the day after an interview in which chief executive Martin Bain revealed the club will not be able to spend its way out of trouble this January.
And the Scot is evidently miffed.
‘I knew I had a short summer and I knew I wouldn’t do much business and that it was going to be really difficult, but I did expect to do some business in January,’ he said.
‘But I won’t be able to. That’s the understanding, that’s what I’ve been told. It’s frustrating.’
Moyes, then, will have to find a solution from within and he might well look to Conte and Chelsea for inspiration.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Moyes, having praised Conte’s use of a three-man defence on the eve of the game, duly mirrored the selection of his opposite number; he must be doing something right, after all. Needless to say, however, Sunderland’s wing-backs were operating more like full-backs.
Three of those selected in Moyes’ new-look formation were former residents of Stamford Bridge. But that Van Aanholt, Fabio Borini and Papy Djilobodji managed just six league appearances between them for the Blues perhaps explains why they are now playing for the division’s bottom club and no longer on the books in West London.
It was easy to see, however, why Marcos Alonso has made the journey in the opposite direction and the Chelsea wing-back – a popular loanee on Wearside three years ago – was again outstanding at both ends of the park.
But Chelsea – minus the injured Eden Hazard, the playmaker responsible for a quarter of his side’s goals this season – struggled for inspiration during the opening exchanges.
They were only snapped from their slumber by a pair of robust home challenges which left Diego Costa and Willian in a heap. Lamine Kone and Jason Denayer were the perpetrators and, while it stirred the home crowd, it also livened the visitors.
Alonso soon escaped down the left and drew back for the unmarked Costa on the penalty spot. Goal, you assumed. But perhaps the Spaniard was still feeling the effects of being flattered by Kone moments earlier, for he sliced horribly wide.
Sunderland did not learn their lesson and again Alonso found space high on the flank and whipped through the six-yard area. This time, however, there were no takers. That three-man defence of Sunderland’s was looking more like a six-man unit as Chelsea exerted their dominance.
David Luiz soon took aim from a 20-yard free-kick and, when it was deflected off Adnan Januzaj in the home wall, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was handily placed to save with relative ease.
But the young England stopper stood little chance with Chelsea’s breakthrough goal.
It may have looked simple – Fabregas to Willian to Fabregas, goal – but the execution of each pass and the Spaniard’s subsequent finish – a first-time tuck into the bottom corner from 20 yards – was of the highest quality.
By the time the hour-mark arrived Victor Moses had twice drilled inches wide from range and Willian came even closer when striking the crossbar.
This was turning into a shooting session for the league leaders and, with the home supporters somewhat subdued, Willian shaved the base of the post after drifting infield unopposed from the right.
Sunderland pressed late on but Courtois clawed Van Aanholt’s strike from the top corner.
It was a deserved victory for Chelsea and their brilliant manager. A year, it seems, is a long time in football.