Chelsea throw down gauntlet to rivals as Hazard inspires rout of Burnley
Chelsea 3 - Burnley 0, Stamford Bridge
The fanfare has been reserved up to now for the contenders up in Manchester, the focus fixed rather more on the resumption of a duel between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho now to be played out over a city divide. Yet, slipping beneath the radar down in the capital, Chelsea are a team revived under Antonio Conte. The threat they pose in the title race this term should not be underestimated.
This was a third successive league win under the Italian, and the most impressive of the team's displays under his stewardship to date, with Burnley dismantled from the outset and outclassed throughout.
Chelsea were irrepressible, Eden Hazard epitomising it all by tearing at will beyond the unfortunate Matthew Lowton as if last season had just been a bad dream. Willian provided balance by exploiting Stephen Ward on the opposite flank, but there was urgency all over this team. Burnley, far too passive for comfort, never stood a chance.
Conte never stopped bellowing instructions at any point, even when the game was clearly won. He kicked every ball, berated every mistake or pang of sloppiness, and celebrated manically each of his team's rewards as if this was the game upon which the championship hinged.
It is easy to see why he is in need of a few days off next week, but he will relax easier knowing his team are retiring into the international break with their pristine record maintained. "It's actually a pity that there's now a break because I wanted to continue playing games," said the Italian. "We played good football with good ball possession, created a lot of chances to score goals. The most important thing was, after 13 games conceding goals at home [stretching back to the visit of Scunthorpe United in mid-January] we didn't concede."
That is a remarkable statistic, but this was less a contest than a rout. Hazard's opening goal, so slickly taken, was a wrecking ball to the visitors' game-plan. Where Sean Dyche's side had sat back and defended so stoutly against Liverpool the previous week, their own lead having been established in the opening exchanges, here Burnley were gasping in arrears from the moment, 10 minutes in, the Belgian collected possession just inside his own half. As he sprinted forward at panicked defenders, Diego Costa and Willian dragged opponents out of position with clever, selfless runs. Ben Mee was too flustered to risk a challenge, with Hazard easily cutting inside and curling a delicious shot into the far corner of Tom Heaton's net.
It was a goal reminiscent of the forward at his best in the title-winning campaign, reward taken on the gallop with the confidence of a player utterly content with his role in the team. N'Golo Kante's busy energy as Chelsea's new midfield shield has given the creators a platform upon which to perform though Oscar was just as feverish with his tackling further up the pitch. Even Nemanja Matic, a player diminished over the last 18 months, looked more like his old self.
Heaton alone preserved the visitors' relative respectability. After Mee scrambled another Hazard shot from the goalline, the goalkeeper saved smartly from John Terry's header and instinctively from Costa's rather languid shot, an opportunity was born of Oscar's quick feet near the bye-line which had left Steven Defour grounded and helpless.
"That first-half display was as poor as we've been in a year," said Dyche. "There's a huge gulf between where we are as a club and where they are, but we didn't perform well in that period."
Willian had eventually found his own reward just before the break, teasing space from Ward before spitting a shot through the full-back's legs, across Heaton and into the net. Victor Moses eventually gave Willian a breather and duly registered a first league goal for the club since November 2012, thumping in Pedro Rodriguez's tantalising cross at the far post.
Conte's side will face greater tests once the campaign resumes but, on this evidence, they will be eager to confront them. This team feels menacing again.
Sunday Indo Sport