Chelsea stroll to within a games reach of title and send Middlesbrough down

Victory at West Brom on Friday will confirm Chelsea as Premier League champions after a 3-0 win relegates Middlesbrough

It was a rare to have a night when two teams had such contrasting stories at the final whistle. For Chelsea, the mathematics are simple now and surely nobody can think those celebrations at the end, with Antonio Conte on the pitch to embrace each of his players, were premature. His side will be champions with one more win and they looked absolutely determined to play in that manner against a Middlesbrough team that quietly drops into the Championship, relegated after only one season back in the top division.

If everything goes according to plan, Chelsea can wrap things up when they play at West Bromwich Albion on Friday. Alternatively, it could possibly stretch to their next home game against Watford the following Monday if, that is, Tottenham Hotspur can beat Manchester United the previous day. All that is certain, for now, is that Chelsea have a seven-point lead with three games to go and their supporters can probably be forgiven for going through their victory songs. Tottenham Hotspur, its happened again, was one late chorus from the Matthew Harding Stand.

They can afford to gloat because the chances of Contes side unravelling from this position are somewhere between minimal and non-existent. They will be deserving champions and their latest victory was typical of the high-energy domination that has brought them to this happiness. Chelsea did not have a single period of the match when they lost control. They won with something to spare and, if anything, it was a surprise they did not treat themselves to even more goals.

Middlesbrough, meanwhile, looked what they are: a team that has drifted aimlessly towards relegation, with 26 goals from 36 games. This was the 17th time this season they have failed to score in the league. They have not won at Stamford Bridge since Jack Charlton was manager in 1975 and that 42-year run was never likely to be threatened bearing in mind they have not beaten a single side from the top half of the league all season. Middlesbroughs solitary away win came at Sunderland in August and they were obliging opponents for a team with Chelseas haughty ambitions.

The champions-elect certainly did not miss NGolo Kant, absent with a thigh injury on the day he was name the Football Writers Association Player of the Year to go with the award he has already received from the Professional Footballers Association. Cesc Fbregas fitted seamlessly into midfield, passing the ball with wonderful elegance, setting up two of the goals and delivering a man-of-the-match performance. On this evidence, Kant deserves the seasons individual honours if he has kept this man out of the side.

Marcos
Marcos Alonso celebrates with teammates after scoring the second, which deflected in off Middlesbrough goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

It was a night when Diego Costa, with the opening goal, scored for the 20th time in the league this season, equalling his best-ever total for Chelsea. Eden Hazard shimmered with menace. Marcos Alonso and Pedro skimmed shots against the crossbar and Chelsea now have 84 points, three more than Leicester managed when they won the league last year and, incredibly, 36 higher than the team from Stamford Bridge had managed at the corresponding stage last season. Even at 3-0, Conte was still stalking the touchline, screaming orders and reminding us that the Italians are masters of the hand gesture. His team have won 15 out of their 17 home league games and they have a manager who simply refuses to allow complacency to creep in.

More than anything, Chelsea looked as though they were enjoying themselves. They played like a side in a hurry and it was from their first meaningful attack, after barely 70 seconds, that Alonsos shot ricocheted off Brad Guzan, the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, to flash against the woodwork. The tone had been set and from that moment it was near-unremitting pressure on the visitors goal.

Guzan had a difficult night but, in fairness, he was not alone when it came to Steve Agnews players. Fbio da Silva, Middlesbroughs Brazilian right-back, had let Alonso run past him for the second goal and the same defender was also partly to blame when Costa opened the scoring 11 minutes earlier. Fbregas had clipped the ball into the penalty area and Fbio, stretching, inadvertently turned it into Costas path, leaving the striker with the chance to slide his shot through Guzans legs.

By that stage Alonso had flashing a shot across the goalmouth with his second attempt of the first half. His next effort was also going wide but Guzan had come off his goal-line. The ball struck the inside of the goalkeepers leg and flew into the net.

The rest of the night for Middlesbrough was an exercise in damage limitation but it would be harsh to say they demonstrated why they had won only once in their previous 18 league games since Christmas. The truth is not many sides could cope when Chelsea are playing with this drive and motivation, when Fbregas is passing the ball with such distinction and every single player in blue is playing at the point of maximum expression.

They began the second half exactly where they had left off: looking for more goals. There was only one more, however, and it arrived in the 65th minute. Fbregas, again, played the decisive pass. Nemanja Matic controlled the ball on his chest, spun away from the nearest defender and lashed in a right-foot shot. Chelsea had played like champions and Conte was off on another of his victory runs.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/may/08/chelsea-middlesbrough-premier-league-match-report