It took a scuffed shot. A scuffed shot — a ludicrous mishit, to be perfectly honest — was, in the end, what it took to open the West Bromwich Albion defence. Much has been made of the Baggies’ poor form since hitting the 40-point plateau, but at the Hawthornes on Friday night they were everything you’d expect from a Tony Pulis side. They kept their shape, fought for the ball so hard you could almost taste the curses and used their physicality to cause problems at the other end of the pitch. A safe West Brom might have been pushovers. Instead, they were resolutely West Brom.
To break them down it took 82 minutes, three serious scares, a double substitution and Gary Cahill slicing an attempted 22-yard volley so far off target that his effort might have troubled the corner flag had it not been for Cesar Azpilicueta. To break them down it took a brief hesitation from Chris Brunt, a longer one from the rest of the Baggies defence, and a deft sidefoot across the six-yard box from England’s most accomplished defender, suddenly declaring himself provider as the chase for the title reached its climax.
To break them down it took all that: before the slice came the cross and the header too, but then a finish was required too. It took Michy Batshuayi, without a Premier League goal since August, lunging in unmarked — Spongebob Squarepants would have scored — guiding the ball past Ben Foster, a touch unable to keep it out.
To break West Brom down and win the league, it took finishing in 10th place and a €33 million outlay on a talented prospect from Marseille. It took, too, that spent on N’Golo Kante, or Marcos Alonso, purveyor of the header that led to the shot that led to the sidefoot that led to the finish. It took guiding Eden Hazard from sulking half-fitness back into Calamity Hazard, Scourge and Saddener of Defenders. It took finding Nemanja Matic’s soul in the Spirit World and returning it to a previously torpid and dubiously corporeal body.
To win the league it took a devastating loss to Arsenal. It took reclaiming Victor Moses from the eternal loan treadmill and forging him into a devastating wingback. It took recasting Azpilicueta as a centre back, and handing David Luiz’s controller to an adult. It took hiring a manager capable of prodding Pedro into transcending his Barcelona form and turning Diego Costa back from whichever new and unexpected precipice he managed to discover on any given day.
For Chelsea to become Champions of England it took Antonio Conte, snarling, energetic Juventus midfielder turned implacable Juventus manager turned overachieving Italy boss turned Stamford Bridge redeemer, tasked with taking the Blues from tenth back into Europe. It took a 13 game winning run, hauling Chelsea from 10 points in six matches to 49 in 19. It took Kevin de Bruyne sliding in — Spongebob Squarepants would have scored — and crunching the ball against the crossbar, sparking the comeback at the Etihad to permanently sink Manchester City and elevate the Blues to deserved title favourites.
It took Thibaut Courtois ripping a Patrick van Aanholt shot out of the net and to safety in December and Hazard demolishing Francis Coquelin and Laurent Koscielny (twice) en route to redemption against the Gunners. It took ritually humiliating Jose Mourinho on his return home, then following that up with a demolition job on Ronald Koeman’s Everton, the echoes of that 5-0 win reverberating all the way through the run-in, when Chelsea finally made things at least reasonably safe at Goodison Park.
For Chelsea to go from tenth place to champions took brilliance in the transfer market, bold coaching decisions, decisive leadership, hard work, luck and absolute commitment. Pliny’s Natural History has the phoenix going 540 years between rebirths, lying down to die on a nest of incense before its bones and marrow shape its next generation. The Blues’ rise from the ashes seems almost as unlikely, but follows the same basic shape. We’ve heard for years that the likes of John Terry, Petr Cech, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba are the spine of the team, but no matter how much they might contribute, they’ll never be the bones of the club.
Our bones are these: determination, bloody-mindedness, faith, an indefatigability of spirit and a desire to jam critics’ words back down their throat so hard they squeal. It took those bones (and a scuffed shot, and ...), harnessed by Antonio Conte, his staff, and his players, to return to our rightful place as Premier League champions.
Trouble was brewing 30 seconds into the match. Against Middlesbrough on Monday, Chelsea spent the first minute prying open their opposition, capping off the opening exchanges with Alonso kissing the crossbar with a deflected shot. West Brom were a different proposition. Sustained control led to a cross, Salomon Rondon beat David Luiz to the ball, and Courtois was forced to tip the Venezuelan’s looping header to safety.
That chance might have set the tone for West Brom, who’ve been suffering since beating Arsenal at the Hawthorns last month. It didn’t. The Blues responded to the early warning by putting their feet down and squeezing the life out of the match, holding the ball and probing until they could forge an opening. In the reverse fixture, said opening took its time to arrive. Here it took even longer.
Cesc Fabregas, on for Kante for the second straight match, missed perhaps the best chance of the first half, firing just wide after Hazard teed him up on the edge of the box. Moses did slightly better from a similar position just after the break, guiding a snapshot between James McClean’s legs and towards the far corner, but Ben Foster denied him with a sprawling save.
Chelsea were in control but mostly incapable of forging chances against a tough West Brom defence. Then Pulis decided to make it tougher by throwing professional instigator Claudio Yacob into the fray. Yacob ended the Blues’ sterile dominance, handing -- at one point literally — the Baggies a route back into the match.
They didn’t take it, but it was a close-run thing. Azpilicueta was forced into a last-ditch block on Rondon after David Luiz was undressed in the centre circle, and minutes later a similar attack saw Nacer Chadli stay true to his Spurs roots by bollocksing up a clean opening from 12 yards.
Conte had had enough. Dropped points against West Brom would not have been the end of the world, but it’s difficult to imagine the manager accepting a half-baked performance just because we’d have more (and easier) bites of the cherry later. He wanted a win, and he wanted it as soon as possible.
On stepped Willian* and Michy Batshuayi. Batshuayi’s had an odd season. His promising start (he had the game winning assist against West Ham in the opener, then followed that up with the equaliser at Watford and a two-goal performance in his full debut) had been increasingly pushed out of our minds by his weak performances off the bench, and he failed to impress in his first five minutes here either. His contribution to the match was a slew of fouls, which was amusing but took us no closer to the title.
*Pulling Hazard off when Chelsea needed a goal was a bold move from the manager in a season awash in them.
Then came Gary Cahill’s sliced shot and Azpilicueta’s deft pass. And there was Batshuayi, reveling in the space he’d found, poking home and basking in eternal, unforgettable glory.