Chelsea extend their lead at the top of the table to six points after a hard-fought victory against Sunderland to bring about a record-equalling tenth consecutive Premier League victory.
A solitary Cesc Fabregas goal at the end of the first half was enough for Conte’s men to bring all the spoils back to SW6, but it was not without its dangers as Courtois pulled off a spectacular injury-time save to deny Patrick Van Aanholt an equaliser.
In the end Chelsea did see the match out to record their best run since 2005-2006 season, and crucially kept their tenth clean sheet of the season, a feat achieved in just 16 matches this season when it took them the entire 38-game season last year.
It was nothing more than the visitors deserved, who had 66% possession and some 19 shots, but found Pickford in fine form, but Conte will not care about the manner of the victory as six points is opened up with Arsenal losing last night.
The visitors have won 19 of the last 23 Premier League meetings against Sunderland, but the hosts won this fixture in May last season, so it was little wonder to see a cagey start as both sides looked to sound out the opponent. David Moyes was vying to win three Premier League games in a row at the Stadium of Light for the first time since February 2012, but set up his side to negate Chelsea’s wing-backs.
That created a slow opening 10 minutes, with little other to note than Marcos Alonso being resorted to a long-range shot which went closer to Row Z than the goal. The ex-Sunderland loanee simply did not have enough time to let it fall before he was closed down.
Where he was not taking the opportunities, he was certainly in the thick of creating them. With Van Aanholt marking Moses closely at the other end, the most potent source of Chelsea’s attacks came from Alonso down the left, and he had space to run and send in a delicious cross on more than one occasion. The end product lacked substance, but the warnings were there.
However the best chance of the game thus far would go Sunderland’s way. Adnan Januzaj had one-on-one time to run at Gary Cahill, and the Belgian had half a yard on the Chelsea captain if he went wide, but opted to cut inside on his left foot and Cahill read it to deflect his shot wide.
At the other end, Costa’s half-volley lacked precision when he was free in the box from Alonso’s cross, but their first substantial chance — in the 40th minute — would yield a goal.
Pedro plucked the ball out of the air, found Fabregas who laid on a one-two to Willian out wide. The Brazilian returned the pass one-touch with perfect delicate weighting for Fabregas to sweep in a daisy-cutter from 20 yards.
It was a sweet goal and perfect vindication for Fabregas, who came into the side ahead of Matic, as he recorded his first Premier League goal of the season.
It could have become two with the last kick of the half as Costa was hauled down by O’Shea in injury time, but Willian’s free-kick flew over despite getting good contact.
How they could have been made to pay within 60 seconds of the restart as both sides came flying out of the blocks.
Januzaj overlapped a surging Defoe run and was found superbly by the Englishman, but Courtois denied his fellow compatriot with his legs.
The ensuing corner was cleared and Chelsea ran up the other end where Moses really ought to have doubled his side’s lead but shot wayward when presented with a better opportunity than the one Fabregas took earlier in the game.
Willian’s change of pace left ex-Chelsea man Papy Djilobodji for dead but his shot was deflected onto bar, before the next opportunity saw Costa marauding forward and his shot deflected for a corner.
Sunderland were certainly living dangerously, none more so than when Kone barged Costa over in the penalty area. The Spaniard was onside but slow to race onto Pickford’s goal for a glorious opportunity and Kone raced back, arguably illegally but Neil Swarbrick was unmoved.
Costa continued to feel aggrieved when the next opportunity presented to him from a Moses cross was again unfulfilled, with this time Costa moaning he was pushed by Kone before he could make contact. Again a legitimate claim but again Swarbrick was unmoved.
Borini then blazed wide as he tried to relieve some pressure on his side who were constantly under cosh, but it was not before long before the ball was back at the other end, with Willian trying to do a Hazard by cutting in from the left-wing on his right foot, but the Brazilian lacked the curl his team-mate could often show.
As the game wore on with still just the slender one-goal advantage, Chelsea were keen to press on to settle the nerves. Costa worked the ball well out wide to Alonso, whose cross-cum-shot from out wide was well-held by Pickford.
Cahill threw his body on the line to block Borini whilst at the other end Kante came right through the heart of the Sunderland middle and his shot stung Pickford’s hands.
Matic came on to shore things up in the final quarter of an hour, but Chelsea really craved that second goal, coming close through Willian but for the Brazilian to shoot straight at Pickford. Costa then had the ball smothered by a strong hand by Pickford as there was just no budging for that second goal.
Fabregas then was through but pulled wide, as Willian came off for Chalobah to waste yet more time.
A Sunderland onslaught ensued as Azpilicueta pulled a superb defending header off a cross, and from the corner the ball was claimed triumphantly by Courtois. Patrick Van Aanholt really should have equalised at the death with a stunning strike but Courtois somehow reacted superbly after little to do all game, and Chelsea open up the six-point lead.
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Man of the Match
CESC FABREGAS: The Spaniard has been very much a super-sub when used in the past couple of games, but with arguably less defending to do against a Sunderland side, Conte felt confident to bench Matic and utilise Fabregas’ creative energies, and boy did it pay off. The defensive solidity of Matic is still required, as shown as the end, but there is no substitute for Fabregas’ vision for a pass — long or short — nor his instinct to pop up with vital goals when his side needs him. 7/10
Conte knew his side put more pressure on themselves than they should have: “When you have the possibility to kill the game, you must kill the game. We had this possibility but we didn’t and at the end Courtois made a good save. It was good, it is important for the future because today we didn’t pay but when you have the possibility to kill the game you must kill the game. I hope in the future we can improve.”
Moyes was not in consolation mood: “Don’t say commiserations, it sounds bad, they deserve more than that. We don’t have the quality of Chelsea but we did a really good job. I don’t want a pat on the back for losing, I want the points.”
Post written by Martin Li. Martin has had five years’ blogging experience, writing for the likes of Bleacher Report and SWOL. He runs his own Chelsea blog — The Chelsea Chronicle — which has match reaction and analysis from every Chelsea match. You can follow him on Twitter.
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