TITLE MARCH: Chelsea players celebrate after beating Bournemouth
IT WAS plain sailing for Chelsea as they collected another three points following a trip down to the Bournemouth seaside.
The Londoners remain firm favourites for a second Premier League title in three seasons, maintaining their seven-point lead over bitter rivals Tottenham who thrashed Watford earlier in the day.
Goals from Eden Hazard, Marcus Alonso and an Adam Smith own goal eased the Blues over the line, despite a Josh King strike that gave the home side a sliver of hope.
It was a glorious day on the Dorset coast – sunglasses, T-shirt and shorts weather. And the visitors seemed determined to enjoy their day out, however keeper Thibaut Courtois was forced into saving David Luiz’s blushes with a smart save in the first minute after the Brazilian defender deflected a whipped cross towards the top corner.
Chelsea soon settled snuggly into the game, while manager Antonio Conte was animated as ever in the dugout.
The visitors kept the Cherries at arm’s length for most of the opening exchanges, but Eddie Howe’s men carried a sense of purpose, none more so than livewire Ryan Fraser. The diminutive winger got the home fans excited in the 16th minute with a menacing run at last man Luiz that ended with a fierce shot whizzing past the post.
Chelsea duly took note and within 60 seconds registered the game’s maiden goal – a somewhat fortuitous one at that. Victor Moses, full of running throughout the game, found Diego Costa in the box and the Spain striker turned onto his left foot. What followed was slapstick. Costa poorly sliced his shot – it looked to be going closer to the corner flag than goal – but the ball spun off the backside of Smith and trickled in off Artur Boruc’s far post.
Chelsea smelled blood. Three minutes later, N’Golo Kante received possession in the middle of the park and had the vision to pick out Hazard with a delightful lofted ball over Bournemouth’s backline. The Belgian attacker had timed his run to perfection and was in on goal with his first touch. He shimmied past Boruc, holding his balance to slot into the unguarded net.
It was a goal that embodied the league leader’s killer instinct and Hazard’s mercurial ability.
The visitors tried to further capitalise and put the tie to bed, but Bournemouth striker King, in the form of his life, had other ideas. A few minutes before the break, the Norwegian forward bagged a 13th league goal thanks to a venomous hit from outside the box that skimmed off Luiz’s knee, sending the ball over Courtois’ despairing dive.
Prior to that, Benik Afobe struck the woodwork with a lovely first-time volley from a Charlie Daniels cross – the ball squirted across the goal-line after rebounding off Courtois but harmlessly went out for an incorrectly-awarded goal-kick.
Meanwhile Costa was looking out of sorts, a number of passes going awry and losing possession under minimal pressure. It was no surprise he failed to find the net – his barren run in front of goal continues.
In the second half the pattern of play resumed – Chelsea playing the ball comfortably, relishing time and space, while the hosts tried to make the most of rare possession around their opponents’ box.
On-loan Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere impressed in fits and bursts for the Cherries, but he was unable to unlock a Chelsea defence that has been leaking goals – Conte’s side last kept a clean sheet in January.
Any hope of reaching parity was dashed in the 68th minute when Alonso curled in a wonderful free-kick. The Spanish left-wing-back has shown pedigree with previous dead ball attempts going close during the campaign. But this time he was on the money, leaving Boruc rooted to the spot and crushing the locals’ remaining optimism.
Chelsea saw out the last 20 minutes in a professional manner. Chasing Tottenham will be under no illusions – based on Chelsea’s latest win, the champions elect are serious about wrapping up the title as soon as possible.