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Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Diego Costa turn on style to sink Southampton

The Guardian logo The Guardian 31-10-2016 Dominic Fifield at St Mary's
Diego Costa celebrates scoring Chelsea’s second goal at Southampton. © Getty Images Diego Costa celebrates scoring Chelsea’s second goal at Southampton.

Chelsea’s title challenge under Antonio Conte feels more persuasive with every passing week. This was arguably a more impressively constructed victory than that handed to them so obligingly by Manchester United the previous week, a win chiselled out against one of the form teams in the division and a side who had not lost here since February. Southampton ended up feeling forlorn.

Given the hosts’ underlying qualities, to win this comfortably was remarkable. The London club, then under Guus Hiddink’s interim management, had been the last team to prevail at Southampton’s expense on the south coast, but that had been a success squeezed late from an even contest. This, in contrast, was a masterclass in how to exert almost complete control despite the home side hogging the ball for the majority of the play.

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Conte’s side were expertly drilled, the three-man defensive block seamlessly supplemented into a five when required, with wing-backs working feverishly at both ends of the pitch and a midfield crammed with energy and industry. They have adapted superbly to that system and have now not been breached in seven hours of Premier League football, all but five minutes of which has been with a trio of centre-halves blunting their opponents’ intent. A team that had appeared so fragile against Liverpool and Arsenal have unearthed steel.

Picking passage through these resolute massed banks of blue must now feel an onerous task. It was one utterly beyond Southampton. The visitors’ lead had been established early. A cleverly delivered move upfield culminated in Victor Moses slipping a return pass round Ryan Bertrand for Hazard to collect. The Belgian took his time to tease out Steve Davis’ sliding tackle before cutting inside and ripping a low shot through Fraser Forster at his near post.

It was the third successive game in which the winger had scored, swelling his season’s tally to five already. He has managed more goals in 10 games this season than he mustered in all 31 last time round, with Davis left to curse a momentary lapse in concentration which had allowed him to skip into space.

Southampton monopolised the ball thereafter but, to the grumbled frustration of the locals, simply ran aground whenever they gained any kind of sight of goal. Charlie Austin headed over their best opportunity just after the hour-mark and would later have a goal ruled out for offside, but the better opportunities had always been eked out by Chelsea on the galloping counter.

Forster had claimed Hazard’s low attempt, twice denied the excellent Moses and blocked Diego Costa’s drive with his legs after Nemanja Matic, another player revived, had robbed Jordy Clasie. The goalkeeper was reliant upon José Fonte’s stretch to deny Hazard a tap in from Marcos Alonso’s drilled cross, though Conte’s side always felt in control and capable of further reward.

Diego Costa eventually provided it with Southampton again culpable of dozing, this time at a free-kick touched by David Luiz to Hazard. Costa accepted the ball just outside the corner of the area, cut infield marginally and, as Cuco Martina limply hung out a leg in a half-hearted attempt to block, curled a shot emphatically into the far corner with Forster helplessly exposed.

It was a stunning finish from another player who, while he may not always see eye-to-eye with an intensely demanding manager, is thriving under Conte’s stewardship.

As are this entire collective. It took Chelsea 20 games and into the new year to accrue this many points last season. This time round theirs is an unnerving presence hovering on the leading trio’s shoulder.

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