On Sunday November 20th, Chelsea forced their way to the top of the Premier League table by beating Middlesbrough 1-0 at the Riverside. It was the first time all season that the Blues finished a weekend atop the pile, their sixth win in a row confirming that the early struggles were a blip on the way to contending for a title rather than a more fatal issue.
It would have been fitting, then, if the return fixture had confirmed Chelsea as champions. But, alas, the numbers didn’t quite work out. The title remains unsecured. Despite cruising to victory at Stamford Bridge tonight, we require one more win (or three draws) from the final three games. A seven point lead as we head into the final stretch is not quite robust enough for celebration, but it’s certainly more than enough for confidence.
The title race was going survive the match no matter the result, but the same was not true for Middlesbrough’s Premier League future. With Swansea scrambling a win against a suddenly-reeling Everton, Boro needed at least a point to retain any hope of safety. Teams on the precipice but still fighting are amongst the more dangerous opponents in the league. The desperate adrenaline that comes with the terminal stages a relegation fight had already given Manchester City a bloody nose last week, and the fear of something similar occurring here didn’t seem too outlandish at kickoff.
Chelsea, however, were pretty thoroughly disinterested in either nerves or Middlesbrough’s league position. Tottenham Hotspur had faltered on Friday, and their tepid display at the Olympic Stadium needed to be matched by a merciless showing at Stamford Bridge. And it was clear from kickoff that there would be no slip here. Within two minutes Brad Guzan was forced into action, unconvincingly bouncing Marcos Alonso’s goalbound effort into the ground and onto the crossbar. The close call set the tone for the whole match.
Under Aitor Karanka, Boro were a fearsome defensive unit without the structure or the talent to be a consistent scoring threat. That’s not a recipe for Premier League success — you need to be able to win games to stay up — but it is one for being very annoying. In the first half of the season Middlesbrough claimed draws at both the Etihad and the Emirates and came within minutes of escaping Old Trafford with three points. Their weakness was crippling, but they used to have the capacity to frustrate.
No longer. With Karanka gone, Boro have ditched the system that made them so robust, but still lack the attacking talent to trouble teams. That lack of structure was evident here: the only Chelsea players who were regularly marked were Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Pedro, and even that trio routinely found themselves free. The wingbacks, meanwhile, had the freedom of the park, and if anybody had been given the task of picking up Cesc Fabregas they’d clearly opted out.
The disastrous defensive posture was not matched by any corresponding potency on the ball. In our previous encounter, Adama Traore was a constant threat, a stout little tornado dragging blue shirts all over the pitch. Here he was shut down by Marcos Alonso. Nor was there any hint of trouble from Alvaro Negredo. Their impotence going forward meant that Middlesbrough had no way of relieving pressure, and although they kept six in the box whenever Chelsea threatened they were courting disaster at every turn.
By the time the opener arrived the Blues might have been two or three goals to the good. Normally a match report might list out scoring chances or smart moves, lingering joyously on each. Were we to do that this time everyone would be here all night. Suffice it to say that by the time Fabregas and Costa combined for the opener the former probably should have scored and the latter probably should have won a penalty. And it only took 23 minutes for Chelsea to go 1-0 up.
Fabio was clearly not up to the task of dealing with Eden Hazard and even less capable of tracking Alonso whenever the wingback ventured forward. Adding Costa cutting through the defence on his weak side to the mix was an act of pure cruelty. It was also enormously effective. To his credit, Fabio managed to get a touch on Fabregas’s diagonal ball, his acrobatics almost making up for his disorientation on the attempted clearance. But the deflection wasn’t enough to prevent Costa from corralling the pass and poking a low shot through Guzan’s legs.
The rout was on, and it didn’t take long for Chelsea to double their lead. Again, the visitors were picked off by a right-to-left diagonal. This time the protagonists were Azpilicueta and Alonso, and the tight-angle ‘shot’ that went in off Guzan’s left leg was probably a cross, but the outcome was the same: Boro prostrate, Chelsea marching on. A raft of chances followed. None went in.
Halftime came with the score flattering the visitors at 2-0, and although Pedro quickly did his best to extend the lead to something more reasonable, his long-range shot kissed the top of the crossbar. We’d have to wait to get our third.
But not for too long. A corner broke down, Hazard drove back into the box, and the combination of David Luiz and Fabregas worked the ball to Nemanja Matic, who controlled with his chest and then shot through Guzan’s legs from close range. It was Matic’s first goal at Stamford Bridge and, somewhat more amusingly, Guzan’s third nutmeg conceded on the night.
With Boro disappointing in possession even after introducing Patrick Bamford to the fray, it was clear that a 3-0 lead was going to be more than enough to claim the points. So Antonio Conte made changes, resting Hazard, Luiz and eventually Pedro and letting his side trundle towards the finish line. Meanwhile, his guests were tumbling out of the division entirely. The Premier League can be a brutal place.
Just ask Tottenham.