The win against Southampton was big. We all knew it. Many of us were suffering from unhealthy blood pressure after Oriol Romeu made it 1-1. Even after Chelsea went into halftime with a lead thing felt too tight, too tense. After the match, Gary Cahill described it as a big step towards winning the title, but with Tottenham Hotspur hot on our heels, taking the three points we’d expect from a home match against the Saints was an occasion for relief more than celebration.
Not so this win. Having held serve on Tuesday, the Blues travelled to Goodison Park for what was, on paper at least, their most difficult fixture left in the run-in. This was the chance to take a serious, positive step towards the Premier League crown and to establish some margin for error in the remaining fixtures. Chelsea didn’t need to win, but failure to do so would have virtually guaranteed an uncomfortably close May.
Everton have been in fine form, but said form has been pretty inexplicable given the players at their disposal. They possess the Premier League’s finest non-top-six player in Romelu Lukaku but very little else of note, stuffing their side with youngsters of various quality and hype.
For my money (ignoring Morgan Schneiderlin, who might as well be a ghost after spending the past couple of seasons sadly haunting Old Trafford), their most influential non-Belgian is Idrissa Gueye. Gueye has been a sort of budget version of N’Golo Kante over the past few years, and his absence at Stamford Bridge might have gone some way towards powering Chelsea to that 5-0 win back in November.
It was somewhat surprising, then, that Ronald Koeman decided to use his most dynamic midfielder to permanently nullify Eden Hazard. He was, of course, taking a page out of Jose Mourinho’s playbook, who twice sent Ander Herrera to take Hazard out of the game and was rewarded for it at the second attempt. But the Toffees aren’t Manchester United, and it was difficult to imagine the scheme working out quite as well for Everton
Removing both Hazard and Gueye from the equation did take away Chelsea’s most potent attacking threat, but it also meant that the hosts’ shield in front of a creaky defence consisted of Tom Davies and Ross Barkley. The Toffees midfield was youthful, ferocious and undeniably talented, but collectively they take their defensive positioning roughly as seriously as Victor Moses does throw-ins. There was always going to be space for the Blues to hit.
The action, however, started at the other end. Barkley, a fine attacker whenever there’s no opportunity for him to run down blind alleys, played in fellow youngster Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Calvert-Lewin, tailed by Cesar Azpilicueta, drove into the box and tried to catch Thibaut Courtois with a near-post snapshot. A deflection off Azpilicueta made the keeper’s job much harder than it should have been, but he managed to just about tip the ball onto the post, leaving Gary Cahill to sweep away the rebound ahead of Lukaku.
It would be an exaggeration to portray that moment as Everton’s only dangerous attack of the match, but only barely. The Toffees, guaranteed Europa League football but no more, were lacklustre in their recent draw at West Ham, and the drive they’d shown in previous home games was lacking here too. Chelsea, meanwhile, were playing it relatively safe, limiting the space for the hosts to break into and hoping to hit them quickly on the break.
That nearly paid off in the twelfth minute. Diego Costa demolished Ashley Williams on the halfway line and played a neat through ball for Hazard to scamper onto. Maarten Stekelenburg was rounded without any difficulty, but the finish — admittedly it was from a tight angle — was disappointing for a man of Hazard’s talent, and the score remained 0-0. Hazard escaped Gueye once more later in the half, but calling a cross into the little Belgian a ‘chance’ probably does unacceptable violent to the English language. So we shan’t.
What we will call a chance is Costa’s 26th-minute miss. A long pass from David Luiz found him in the box one on one against Phil Jagielka. We’ve seen that script before, and Jagielka was once again merrily undressed. But with only Stekelenberg to beat, and from close range at that, Costa hammered a half-volley into the stands. Chelsea wouldn’t create a better opening for the rest of the half, mostly because the passing in the final third was terrible (Kante, Pedro, Alonso — I’m looking at you here), and so we went into the interval at 0-0.
Thanks to our inferior goal differential, a two-point lead over Spurs isn’t worth much more than one. Chelsea needed to put more serious pressure for the second half, and it felt as though the world was waiting for Cesc Fabregas to come on to create his usual spark.
But the Blues didn’t need any changes to open Everton up. The first hint that something was coming was a magnificent corner kick routine. Hazard passed low and hard to the near post, and with the defence all expecting a flick through the six-yard box, Nemanja Matic backheeled to Victor Moses instead. The Toffees were off-balance, but the subsequent shot somehow found the sliver of space between the post and Costa, and the chance was gone.
When the goal did arrive it was less artfully constructed. Pedro had been drifting into the space behind Davies and Barkley all match only to squander those positions with uncharacteristically poor touches, but when Matic picked him out 66 minutes in, he put any previous mistakes to bed.
Jagielka was sent one way then the other with a double body swerve, leaving room for Pedro to pop the ball into space and put his left foot through it. The former Barcelona man notched a key goal earlier in the season from a similar position when he equalised against Tottenham, here he produced a mirrored version of that strike, sending the ball arcing to Stekelenburg’s right. It wasn’t quite in the corner, but it didn’t matter — the pace and bend on the ball left the keeper with no chance.
Koeman responded to going down by introducing Arouna Kone and Kevin Mirallas, but the substitutions failed to produce the desired impact. Instead, Chelsea went up 2-0. Gueye fouled Hazard in a dangerous position on the left, picking up a yellow card for his trouble. The free kick was hit low and into a dangerous area, and although Stekelenberg parried under pressure from both Cahill and Costa, he could only push the ball into the Chelsea skipper, who guided home (probably accidentally) with his knee. It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that a match in which the Blues superstars missed their chances, it was the unsung heroes who got the goals we needed.
At 2-0 the match was pretty much over. Everton hadn’t shown anything like what they needed to get one goal, let alone two, and then the Blues added insult to injury when the long-awaited Fabregas substitution bore fruit when he picked out Willian for the third.
The defence managed to keep the Toffees at arms length for the rest of the game, claiming their first Premier League clean sheet since January. With four games left to play, the Blues are at least four points clear, no matter how the North London Derby might end. That’s a reasonably commanding position that by no means felt inevitable at kickoff. Just one more push and this will be done.