Chelsea’s crusade to another Premier League title is close to a glorious ending. Abrupt hiccups at the hands of Sam Allardyce and Jose Mourinho in the league left so much riding on the FA Cup semi-final with Tottenham Hotspur. Chelsea again, though, pulled it out of the bag. A Wembley victory without the iconic Didier Drogba might be a rarity for the Blues, but it was as significant as anything the dominating Ivorian produced.
It was a performance of individual quality rather than the golden success of the system. Eden Hazard, Willian and Nemanja Matic provided moments of brilliance as Chelsea spent the majority of the match absorbing heavy possession from their London rivals. Functional with off-the-seat nuggets rather than a footballing lesson, it was a fitting reflection of a Chelsea side that’s momentum has eked away in 2017.
The two defeats sent echoes around the footballing world. Chelsea’s seamless canter to the trophy was brought to an abrupt halt with two defeats as Spurs were continuing to pick up three points whenever they took the field. Reverberations of those results could have caused cracks to appear in a Chelsea squad that is far from the best, deepest or most talented in the league. Instead – largely down to Conte’s influence – they held it together to make sure those six dropped points were nothing more than irritating blips.
Since their draw with Burnley back in February, though, Chelsea’s league victories have lacked conviction. Late goals were needed to beat Swansea, a dramatic Gary Cahill header secured victory at Stoke and sucker-punches were required against Manchester City. Winning away at West Ham and Bournemouth was slightly more relaxed for Chelsea, but even those games were not glossed with the sort of dominant displays they produced in the latter months of 2016.
The win over Southampton in midweek was a necessity and again it was Cahill who turned the match. A brave – if not stupid – header late in the first half saw Chelsea take charge from the beginning of the second period and they never really looked back from then on.
They are finding means of victory. At times their play was breathtaking during their winning streak before Christmas, but those moments of aesthetic footballing joy are altogether infrequent now. Antonio Conte may not mind with the points all that really matters as Chelsea stretch out a hand towards the trophy, yet it is perhaps a sign of where the rest of the league is.
Even with the defence teetering under the slightest of pressure, Chelsea are still on course to record one of the highest points totals in Premier League history. They could yet succumb to the pressure, of course, but the Blues’ efficiency even in a period of indifferent form suggests otherwise.
Conte’s side are not a machine like Mourinho’s best Chelsea outfits, nor are they an artistic project like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, they are a masterful example of making use of players available to a manager. There is no doubt Chelsea need reinforcements throughout the squad this summer, but that only amplifies the achievements of this season.