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Chelsea hold off Bournemouth, maintain 7-point lead

A 3-1 victory at the Vitality Stadium means the Blues need just 15 points from 7 games to clinch the title.

AFC Bournemouth v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

We’re all aware, I think, of the phenomenon of movies being so bad that you have to watch them. There’s a profound comedy in watching films that Take Themselves Seriously fall apart in front of the public, in consuming performances memorable mostly for their transcendent level of ineptitude. This effect is so well known that there’s even been a television show (Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was a staple of my formative years) dedicated to celebrating entertainment through crapness.

I bring this up because until today I thought that being so bad that you’re actually good was totally inapplicable to footballers. Against Bournemouth, Diego Costa proved me wrong. A shot so wildly off-target that it hits a defender in the face and bounces in at the near post? Art. A dribble gone so badly wrong that it invites a foul from which Marcos Alonso scores? More subtle; still beautiful. Weave those key moments into a rich and detailed tapestry of scuffed shots and woeful passes and you have a rare beast indeed: a contribution woeful in all the particulars and yet vital for three points.

And yes, Chelsea took all three points from Bournemouth, who’ve proved challenging opposition for many of the teams hunting for Champions League places this year. Blip at 2-0 aside, they didn’t make it look very difficult either. Having put themselves in a bit of a pickle last weekend with that loss against Crystal Palace, the Blues are now back on track with a comfortable lead in the title race.

It’s natural to be nervous in situations like this. That comfortable lead has been eroded by three points over the last three games, and could conceivably be slashed still further with a trip to Old Trafford looming. With Tottenham Hotspur demolishing an under-strength Watford in the early game, everyone was happy to talk (at sometimes amusing length) about how much pressure Chelsea would be under at the Vitality Stadium. That sort of chatter is difficult to ignore.

Nerves were hardly any less ragged after the first minute, which featured David Luiz attempting a flying clearance from a left-wing cross, which went so badly that it forced Thibaut Courtois into a fine reflex save. That early pressure from the Cherries was something of a blip — Eddie Howe’s plan was clearly to allow Chelsea to have the ball, force mistakes high up the pitch, and then attempt to counterattack. Bournemouth, to their credit, executed that the counterattacking part of that plan pretty well. The problem was that they seemed completely incapable of defending.

The Blues were ahead after 17 minutes. With no pressure on the defensive line, the wingbacks were free to push as far up the pitch as their hearts desired, and David Luiz similarly free to seek them out with long passes. The Cherries fullbacks were occupied by the threat of Pedro and Eden Hazard, so when the ball came to either Victor Moses or Marcos Alonso there was nobody available to pick them up. It was hardly a surprise that such an easy route to the net resulted in a goal.

Chelsea struck on the right side first. With Pedro drawing Steve Cook away from making a challenge, Moses had a free run into the box, where he picked out Costa. Costa’s control and turn were excellent, taking Simon Francis out of the picture, but once free his shot was terrible. It was so terrible, in fact, that it hit Adam Smith, marking Hazard, in the face. That deflection proved decisive: the ball had been heading for the corner flag; now it was destined for the bottom corner. The Blues were 1-0 up.

The 1-0 lead didn’t last long. Lately, Chelsea have had a habit of taking an early lead and then blowing it, so Antonio Conte must have been relieved to see his side add to the scoreline rather than get pegged back. There was no luck involved in this one, either — N’Golo Kante nicked the ball off Jack Wilshere, received possession back from Pedro and spotted Hazard blazing down the left channel. A smart pass hit the Belgian in his stride, and all Hazard had left to do was to beat Artur Boruc (a smart stutter-step) and finish (side-footed from a tight angle).

AFC Bournemouth v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

At 2-0, the Blues began to relax a little bit, becoming perhaps a little too casual as they tried to carve open the Cherries defence. That left themselves open whenever Bournemouth could win back possession, and Benik Afobe might have made them pay just before the half-hour mark when he met a cross with a smart shot that hit the post, hit Courtois and somehow rolled out of play for a corner.

Chelsea were playing with fire, and it didn’t come as much of a surprise when the hosts got their opener. It did, however, require some refereeing help: Smith won possession from Marcos Alonso using his hands, and the subsequent attack saw Afobe release Josh King, who charged into the box, shot straight at David Luiz, and was fortunate enough to see his admittedly thunderous effort deflect just out of Courtois’ reach and into the top corner.

The Blues went into halftime with a one-goal cushion. It probably should have been more. For a while it was looking as though this might be our first away match with a lead of more than a lone goal at the break, and even thought Bournemouth were looking dangerous on the counter Chelsea always seemed more likely to score. They were simply wasteful, and the hosts were making just enough of their forays forward to leave the outcome in doubt.

In doubt it remained — following a similar pattern, no less — until the 67th minute. Costa had wasted a golden opportunity to put the Blues 3-1 up when he contrived to Ramires a neat cross from Alonso, and it seemed as though he’d ended another attack with a blind run into a cluster of Cherries at the edge of the box. Cook, however, was far too enthusiastic in bringing him down, giving Chelsea a very presentable opportunity to pad the lead.

Alonso duly took it. Having struck the crossbar against Sunderland and Stoke from similar positions, there was very little doubt that the ex-Fiorentina man had something special in his locker on free kicks. He had not, however, scored from one until today, a statistic which he rectified in spectacular fashion, curling a shot over the wall and straight into the top corner. Boruc could only look on in admiration.

At 3-1, the points were secure. The hosts could go forward but were crowded out whenever things got too serious, and the only question left to answer for the Blues was whether they could add another. Thanks to Boruc, who made a fine save on Moses when he looked certain to score, they couldn’t.

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