Hazard drives Chelsea into pole position
This is a Hazard warning. Chelsea are on the rise.
Middlesbrough 0 Chelsea 1
Diego Costa's 10th goal of the season gave them their sixth straight Premier League victory, during which they have scored 17 goals without reply, and put them top of the table - a point ahead of Liverpool and Manchester City. The magnetic striker has his desire, hunger and discipline back.
But it was a hard-fought victory over Middlesbrough, halting their recent rally, which included impressive away draws against City and Arsenal, and it was Eden Hazard who helped make the difference; Hazard, Costa and the revitalised Victor Moses were joined by Chelsea manager Antonio Conte on the pitch at the end in exuberant celebration.
Arms raised in triumph, the Italian showed just how much it meant and, afterwards, he spoke warmly of how Chelsea had found a different way to win after their swashbuckling swatting aside recently of the likes of Everton and Manchester United.
In fact, the tenor of it even had some similarities to Jose Mourinho's first title triumph at Chelsea when he swaggered onto the turf away to Blackburn Rovers after another slender 1-0 win, back in 2005, which opened up an 11-point lead at the top. Except this time everyone kept their shirts on at the final whistle.
No team are expected to run away with it as Chelsea did back then but, remarkably, they have eaten up City's eight-point advantage over them and are now one point ahead of Pep Guardiola's side.
Chelsea's next two matches? At home to Tottenham Hotspur and then away to City. It is beautifully set up.
After those games we may really know where Chelsea are at but it already feels a long time ago that they were humiliated by Arsenal and Liverpool. Not that Conte has forgotten.
That different way of winning in this game included throwing on defensive substitutions, such as Nathaniel Chalobah and Branislav Ivanovic, and eventually switching away from a back three to a back four as Middlesbrough, roared on by their relentless, raucous support, refused to give up.
There is an incredible spirit and organisation in Aitor Karanka's team typified by captain Ben Gibson and even if they sit just a point above the relegation zone Conte's switch of tactics was a compliment to them.
Swap Alvardo Negredo for Costa, one Spanish striker for another, and there may have been goals also. As dynamic as Costa was, Negredo was docile.
Chelsea missed chances, they struck the woodwork, they were brilliantly denied by goalkeeper Victor Valdes but Middlesbrough could not, as Conte said, be "killed off" and came back time and time again even if their hard work often broke down when it reached their lumbering centre-forward.
In Adama Traore they have such a quicksilver, skilful attacker, also, but they needed more from him than the ability to beat a man - or three - while they showed an extraordinary appetite to simply just try and stop Chelsea.
That meant stopping Hazard. By fair means or foul. The Belgian was targeted, reasonably enough, but had to ride rough challenges as well while he is in that delicious groove right now when every time he gets the ball there is an audible, collective intake of breath from the opposition's supporters. Philippe Coutinho and Sergio Aguero can have a similar effect.
Hazard created opportunities - aided by Moses, who remorselessly ran at Fabio da Silva, making his first start of the season, with George Friend injured, and clearly identified as a weak link in defence.
There was a clever reverse pass from Hazard, with Moses slicing wide from six yards, and then an even cleverer chip which Moses cut back into Pedro's path. Valdes wonderfully tipped over the powerful first-time shot.
Then Valdes was beaten. The nature of the concession rightly infuriated Karanka as Costa's header, from Hazard's corner, struck Calum Chambers on the back and spun up into the air.
No Middlesbrough defender, or Valdes, reacted quickly enough but Costa did, keeping a hawk-like eye on the ball to crash home a close-range volley.
Valdes denied Marcos Alonso, twice, with strong angled shots but Chelsea should have gone further ahead when, first, David Luiz stepped forward to pick out Costa with a curling cross that the striker headed back into the path of Pedro - whose side-footed shot crashed back off the underside of the cross-bar and, then, Costa dinked the ball through to Moses who - clear on goal - slashed over.
Would Chelsea pay the price? On the touchline Conte grew ever more animated, Hazard's influence eventually began to wane, and the manager sensed the danger which was signalled as Negredo dummied and Gaston Ramirez wastefully shot over before Traore set off on yet another dribble - there were a remarkable 12 in total - only for his cross to fall behind Negredo.
Finally the striker showed some nimbleness to bring the ball down and draw a save from Thibaut Courtois. It was, however, Middlesbrough's only shot on target and that tells its own story. Chelsea ran down the clock, gained the win, took the points and yet another clean sheet as they made it 590 minutes without conceding a goal.
Their fans, their players, their manager celebrated. This time last season the then champions were in 16th place, just three above the relegation zone, and imploding under Mourinho. Now they are back top of the pile for the first time since they won the title in May 2015. They are contenders again.
Conte, however, was not getting carried away. "I think we are working very well, but if you ask me what is our target now, I repeat it is very difficult to tell you this. I want to wait until the end of the first part of the championship." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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