Chelsea’s definition of adversity has shifted radically in the past 13 months. On December 14th, 2015, the Blues were downed 2-1 at Leicester to drop to 16th, with Jose Mourinho sacked in the aftermath. Telling our past selves that Chelsea’s 13-game winning streak coming to an end and the lead atop the table reduced to a mere five points constituted anything like ‘adversity’ would probably have led to a few raised eyebrows.
And yet adversity it was. The 4-1 pasting of hapless Peterborough last weekend failed to wash out the taste of losing at White Hart Lane, and the news of a bust-up between Diego Costa and Antonio Conte seemed perfectly timed for maximum unsettlement. A visit to the champions, whose home form has been reasonably robust this year, seemed a more daunting prospect that our relative league positions would suggest. It was, however, also an opportunity to drop a marker to the rest of the league, if only the Blues might take it.
When Costa found himself suspended in December, it was Eden Hazard who led the line. So it proved again here. The rest of the lineup was unsurprising -- Willian and Pedro wide forwards, Nemanja Matic and the returning N’Golo Kante marshalling the centre. It certainly seemed a strong enough team to take the points, and one early scare aside the Blues were largely untroubled en route to a 3-0 win.
That scare arrived within 80 seconds, in the form of a rare mistake from Cesar Azpilicueta. His attempt to tackle Ahmed Musa went horribly awry, leading to an angled drive which Thibaut Courtois did well to keep out at his near post. It was to be the hosts’ only real attempt on target for the next 85 minutes, by which time the Blues were three goals to the good.
The first arrived through Marcos Alonso. An Azpilicueta cross bounced around the Foxes’ area, allowing Pedro to feed Hazard just outside the six-yard box. Wes Morgan, Marc Albrighton and the entire Leicester team were expecting a shot, and were all wrong-footed by the Belgian’s decision to lay the ball off for Alonso. The wing back hadn’t scored since Chelsea thrashed Everton back in November, but here he had time and space to pick out the bottom corner with a crisp, clean effort.
Early goals have been something of a staple during this season. The recipe has been simple: go ahead early, control the game, strangle the opposition and score on the counterattack. With step one complete, Chelsea opted out of step two for much of the rest of the half.
Which isn’t to say that they were playing badly. Leicester couldn’t really find their feet either, with a handful of frightening crosses from their right wing constituting their only attacking threat. But the Blues were sloppy, giving the ball away in dangerous positions and under minimal pressure. Had the hosts managed to capitalise on one of the slew of errors Chelsea coughed up, it would have been difficult to say it was undeserved.
The thing about storms of one’s own making, however, is that a little focus and application will dispel them. Towards the end of the first half, the Blues shook off whatever malaise had stolen into their play, and started to move with purpose once more. They might have gone into the interval two goals to the good when they caught Leicester off-guard with a smart free kick, but Pedro wafted his shot high and wide after being fed by Hazard, and we’d have to settle for 1-0 at the break.
It didn’t stay that way for long. Willian, who’d had a fairly poor 45 minutes, redeemed himself by turning Christian Fuchs inside out by the corner flag, earning Chelsea a free kick and the Leicester man a yellow card. The delivery looked for all the world as though it would result in David Luiz’s first goal since his return to the club, but the Brazilian, flying towards the ball with three defenders trailing and looking all the world like a mother duck with a brood of bemused young in tow, somehow missed his header completely. Who was there to mop up? Marcos Alonso.
Alonso has had a difficult time of late. He’s been guilty of missing chances that he shouldn’t and not making some challenges that he should. Nathan Ake’s recall from his loan at Bournemouth can’t have improved his mood either. But if he was feeling the pressure, his response was admirable. Having put the Blues 1-0 up in the first half, here he was popping up for the second.
It was a strike as messy as the first was crisp. From the edge of the box, Alonso fired straight at Kasper Schmeichel, a shot that would have been easily saved had it not been deflected twice by a perplexed Wes Morgan, who could only watch in horror as the ball trickled in at the near post. At 1-0 down, the Foxes were in the match. At 2-0? Not so much.
A dive from Albrighton was about as close as they came to troubling Chelsea’s defence for the rest of the match, and it was such a miserable one that Andre Marriner didn’t even bother showing him yellow for his troubles. The Blues, meanwhile, were showboating. Gary Cahill came close to adding a third with a spectacular overhead kick from a corner, while Alonso nearly grabbed what would surely have been the first hattrick of his career with a stunning volley that bent just wide of the far post. The third was coming and everyone knew it. It was still pretty special when it arrived.
Kante picked up a loose ball just outside the Leicester area, but his pass to Pedro looked as though it would give the former Barcelona man a little too much to do. Closed down by no fewer than five Blue shirts at once, Pedro improvised brilliantly, producing a flicked, first-time backheel that popped the ball out to the byline. Willian beat Schmeichel to the pass, and dinked it back into the centre (via deflection) for Pedro to head home and make it 3-0.
Apparently the game went on for a little while after that. It needn’t have bothered. Nothing was going to top that sequence, and the points were well in hand.
Speaking of points, Chelsea now have 52, which is two more than they managed in the whole of the 2015/16 season. With Liverpool travelling to Manchester United, the Blues might end the weekend seven clear at the top of the table. Not so bad for a club in crisis, eh?