Chelsea maintained their three-point lead at the summit of the Premier League with a hard-fought victory over West Brom, with Diego Costa bagging the only goal of the game.
The first-half was definitely a slow-burner. The Blues, as expected, dominated possession from the off, but it was the Baggies, on a four-game unbeaten run and sitting eighth, who carved out the first clear-cut chance, as Salomon Rondon headed into the arms of Thibaut Courtois. Antonio Conte was able to field his preferred starting eleven, but despite this his side were not able to open up a dogged West Brom defence. In addition to their expected solidity, Tony Pulis’ men were showing adventure going forward, with Craig Dawson whipping in an inviting delivery, only for Chris Brunt to head over from point-blank range after six minutes. Nemanja Matic then tried to initiate an attack on his return to the side, but his raking crossfield ball was just out of Victor Moses’ reach. West Brom continued to be the more likely side to score in the opening stages and Matt Phillips should have done better when afforded space, but he blazed over.
By the fifteen-minute mark Chelsea were beginning to get into their rhythm, with Costa and Hazard involved in some intricate build-up play. The West Midlanders have been a difficult opponent in recent seasons and this looked set to continue. However, Ben Foster was untroubled. West Brom then had arguably their best chance of the half, as Chris Brunt wriggled past the challenges of Matic and Marcos Alonso before blazing over. With 25 minutes gone, the Chelsea faithful felt the need to rouse the team, as the visitors had become too comfortable. Not long after, Rondon almost got his name on the scoresheet, nipping the ball off David Luiz and going on the outside of Cesar Azpiliceuta before whipping the ball past the left-hand post. Chelsea then almost broke the deadlock, with N’Golo Kante’s skidding shot deflecting off Pedro and dribbling just wide, before Luiz and Eden Hazard blasted over in quick succession. The half meandered to a rather uneventful conclusion, as West Brom were happy to sit back and hope for a counter.
The second half beginning in a very similar vein, with Chelsea dominating possession but not converting it into chances. Chris Brunt’s ball in had Courtois scrambling. The crowd felt the need to increase the decibel levels once more, as West Brom kept the home side at bay, despite accruing four yellow cards by the 58th minute. Dawson in particular was flirting with danger and should have been sent off for a second bookable offence following a rash challenge on Costa on the hour. The hosts’ threat on the wing had been well and truly nullified, and Conte felt it sensible to throw on Willian to add dynamism in place of Pedro. Phillips then reminded the crowd that his side were still looking for the win, whipping in a ball that Rondon almost got a toe on.
Despite continually probing, Chelsea were thwarted time and again by a well-drilled and hardworking side. Matic had a rare bit of space 25 yards out, but his effort did not trouble Foster. The breakthrough then came on the 76th minute, as a looping ball over the top seemed to be under Gareth McAuley’s control. However, the Northern Irishman dallied on the ball and Costa capitalised on the indecision, pinching the ball before speeding away from the hapless defender and finishing with aplomb past Foster into the top corner. The home side were wary of resting in their laurels, having led twice in this fixture last season before having to settle for a 2-2 draw. Marcos Alonso flashed a shot over in the 86th minute and after a real struggle the home side looked set to haul themselves over the line.
The four minutes of added time gave the Baggies a glimmer of hope, but ultimately they were made to rue the chances that they had squandered at the beginning of the match.
Featured image: AP