Thursday, April 15, 2021

How Chelsea’s title triumph unfolded


tiamin rice

Chelsea players celebrate victory after the English Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea at The Hawthorns stadium in West Bromwich, west Midlands on May 12, 2017. Anthony Devlin / AFP

After Chelsea were crowned Premier League champions on Friday, AFP Sport looks back at how they outlasted early pace-setters Manchester City and held off Tottenham Hotspur to claim the title.

A title race that would finish at a canter began with a sprint. Antonio Conte marked his first match as Chelsea manager with a jubilant run down the Stamford Bridge touchline to celebrate Diego Costa’s last-minute goal in a 2-1 win over West Ham United. Victories over Watford and Burnley followed as Conte made a flying start. There was no sign of Tottenham’s impending emergence as they won just once in three matches.

Early optimism gave way to fears Conte might be out of his depth during a chastening period for the Italian that included a 2-1 loss against Liverpool and a woeful 3-0 defeat at Arsenal. In contrast, Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s new manager, had his table-toppers firing on all cylinders as they won their first six matches, including a 2-1 success at Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.

Chelsea were revitalised by Conte’s switch to his preferred three-man defensive system. They hammered out a statement of intent by crushing champions Leicester City 3-0 and then routed Manchester United 4-0 in a miserable return to the Bridge for former boss Mourinho. Tottenham served notice of their title credentials with a 2-0 victory over City, while Arsenal went joint-top after their best spell of what would prove a troubled campaign.

Coming from behind to inflict Tottenham’s first league defeat of the season, Chelsea’s 2-1 home win — secured by goals from Pedro and Victor Moses — sent them back to the top with a seventh consecutive victory. City and Liverpool were only one point behind, but Guardiola’s men were about to get their first taste of the Chelsea revolution.

Chelsea’s swaggering 3-1 win at City sparked a spiteful response from the hosts, who had Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho sent off amid an ugly bench-clearing brawl. The Blues maintained their momentum with a series of gritty 1-0 wins heading into Christmas before closing out 2016 with goal sprees against Bournemouth and Stoke City to equal the top-flight record of 13 successive victories in a single season.

Chelsea suffered a new year hangover as Dele Alli’s brace gave Tottenham a 2-0 win at White Hart Lane and ended the Blues’ bid to set a new record winning streak. It was a dominant display that paved the way for Tottenham to become Chelsea’s only serious challengers, but Conte’s team recovered, beating Leicester and Hull City, and held a nine-point lead at the end of the month.

By the time Arsenal were put to the sword in a swashbuckling 3-1 Chelsea victory, Conte’s men had opened up what looked an insurmountable 12-point advantage. When Tottenham were beaten 2-0 at Liverpool, it was hard to envisage a challenge from across London, but Mauricio Pochettino’s side were about to hit top gear. Stoke were their first victims, demolished 4-0 after conceding four times in the first half.

Grinding out hard-fought 2-1 wins at both West Ham and Stoke showed Chelsea were not taking their eyes off the prize as they approached the final furlong. Tottenham responded by beating Everton and Southampton to keep the gap at 10 points.

Lowly Crystal Palace gave renewed hope to Tottenham with a stunning 2-1 win at Chelsea and the leaders’ second defeat in 23 league games was gleefully seized upon by Pochettino’s troops. Spurs scored three goals in the closing minutes to win at Swansea City, then battered both Watford and Bournemouth to move to within four points of Chelsea. When the leaders slumped to a limp 2-0 loss at Manchester United, the title race was back on. But Chelsea were not to be denied and wins over Southampton and Everton kept Tottenham at bay despite their victory in the north London derby.

Tottenham’s nine-match winning streak and their bid for a first English title since 1961 came to a shattering end in a 1-0 defeat at West Ham. Relentless Chelsea walloped Middlesbrough 3-0 and their second title in three seasons was sealed with a 1-0 win at West Bromwich Albion.

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