Sport Chelsea

Tuesday 23 January 2018

No Costa, no problem as clinical Chelsea return to winning ways

Leicester City 0 Chelsea 3

Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso (centre) celebrates scoring his second goal against Leicester City with Victor Moses (left) and Gary Cahill. Photo: PA
Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso (centre) celebrates scoring his second goal against Leicester City with Victor Moses (left) and Gary Cahill. Photo: PA

Sam Wallace

The nature of the modern Chelsea is that even in the calmest waters the next storm is never too far away and yet the first player rebellion of Antonio Conte's reign at the club was not permitted by the Italian to derail a Premier League title bid that is firmly back on track.

Without the refusenik Diego Costa, his head turned by a lucrative move to China and not even in the squad that travelled to Leicester, Conte's team still looked as assured as ever in securing their 13th league victory in their last 14 games. It was his wing-back Marcos Alonso who scored the first two goals in a comfortable win over the reigning champions, to move Chelsea seven points clear of Tottenham Hotspur in second place.

Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City and Michy Batshuayi of Chelsea battle for the ball. Photo: Getty
Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City and Michy Batshuayi of Chelsea battle for the ball. Photo: Getty

Of course, Conte will not wish to embark on the rest of the season without his top goalscorer and leading striker, but the club have no intention of selling Costa, whatever the player might wish for, with two years of his contract remaining after this season. While they figure out a way to bring him back into the fold with the minimum of fuss, this victory was an effective riposte, achieved with the usual mastery they have shown this season.

Conte's players controlled Leicester effectively in a fixture which, last season, precipitated Chelsea's sacking of Jose Mourinho in December 2015.

There was a third goal from Pedro, and Jamie Vardy in particular was a peripheral figure for Claudio Ranieri who switched to a three-man defence and then a four-man defence in an attempt to nullify his fellow Italian's side.

For Leicester it was a worrying afternoon, up against their old boy N'Golo Kante, who showed them the kind of stability they once had. The club are 15th in the table now and only five points off the relegation places and while the supporters showed their support for their popular former player, and ambassador, Alan Birchenall, who suffered a heart attack on Friday, they were subdued.

Pedro celebrates with Willian after scoring their team's third goal. Photo: Getty
Pedro celebrates with Willian after scoring their team's third goal. Photo: Getty

After the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur that ended their 13-game winning run, and then Costa's dispute with Conte, Chelsea needed a return to form in the league and this was certainly it.

The system that Conte has created endures even without Costa and, Mauricio Pochettino aside, however much opposition managers try to adapt, they struggle to make an impression.

In the absence of Costa, Conte selected his best player, Eden Hazard, in that central striking role and while the Belgian does not drag defenders around the pitch as the absent Brazilian-born striker does, he certainly occupies minds.

In his pre-match interview, Conte tried to play down the significance of the dispute with Costa, saying only that he had a back injury and had not trained with the first team for three days.

The club are well aware that interest from China is the catalyst for his change in attitude and there is no mood to sell him, from Roman Abramovich or anyone else.

Hazard is much more effective picking the ball up in wide positions but this was a difficult situation for his team and so the Belgian had to play down the middle where he was up against the giants in the centre of Leicester's defence. Ranieri became the latest manager to adapt to the system of the Chelsea manager with a three-man defence augmented by wing-backs.

They had barely time to get used to the new system before the first goal was scored, the ball moved sharply by Chelsea outside the Leicester box before it went right to Cesar Azpilicueta, whose delivery from wide areas has been such a major asset for his team. Pedro was first to the cross and when it dropped, Hazard unselfishly stroked the ball to Alonso, in a better position to shoot.

It was a great start for Chelsea in the absence of Costa and although they did not create another clear chance in the first half after that they kept Ranieri's side at arm's length for much it.

Whatever plans Ranieri might have had for the comeback at half-time, they were swiftly deflated by Chelsea's second goal, and another for Alonso. Willian's free-kick from the right, which he had won himself, fell to Alonso who took a touch and struck a fine shot that Kasper Schmeichel would have saved were it not for a heavy deflection off Wes Morgan.

The third goal was not long after that, a brilliant flick in the box from Pedro redirecting Kante's ball into the path of Willian on the right. His cut-back spun up off Schmeichel and Pedro was in the ideal position to lob a header gently out of reach and into the far corner.

Conte could afford to bring off Hazard, Willian and Pedro before the end of the game and afterwards he was on the pitch celebrating with the away fans.

He even stopped to sign autographs for the Leicester contingent. If it was intended to show he is calm and in control despite the events of the week, it certainly had the desired effect.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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