The performance wasn’t as beautiful as the 4-0 victory over Manchester United or the 5-0 thrashing of Everton, but the result was still the same. Chelsea travelled to the Riverside Stadium and earned a 1-0 victory over Middlesbrough that sends the Blues to the top of the Premier League table.
Diego Costa’s 10th goal of the season just before half-time provided the Blues with the winning margin, but in truth, the score line could have been much more comfortable with more clinical finishing.
That’s taking nothing away from Middlesbrough, though. The home side defended well for long periods of time and looked a threat on the counter, however profligate they were in front of goal.
For Chelsea, the international break may have come at the worst time, and Antonio Conte’s side looked a bit out of sorts in the opening minutes.
Boro’s threat from the counter became obvious at the outset, particularly as the Blues weren’t as sharp as they have been in previous weeks.
Just 30 seconds into the match, Chelsea were nearly caught out by a long cross field ball from Antonio Barragan towards Gaston Ramirez. The attacking midfielder caught Victor Moses napping, but luckily Barragan’s pass was over hit.
Minutes later, Ramirez again found his way behind the Chelsea defence, but a combination of poor decision making and good recovery from the Chelsea defenders eventually saw Alvaro Negredo slash a shot wide.
Boro had few of their own problems defensively as the first half continued. Ramirez and his opposite winger, Adama Traore, were struggling to cope with the attack from wing backs Marcos Alonso and Moses. Moses, in particular, caused Boro’s wide men the most problems, especially as Ramirez did a poor job of tracking his runs.
Moses should have done better with his attempt on goal on 19 minutes when he and Eden Hazard worked an opening down the right side. Moses collected a return pass from Hazard, but cut inside and fired a shot terribly wide of Victor Valdes’ goal.
Moses did much better moments later when he once again got in behind Ramirez to latch on to a dinked ball over the top from Hazard. The Nigerian international cut back a beautiful ball for Pedro whose rising shot forced a great save from Valdes.
Just before the interval, Costa finally struck the dagger in Boro’s heart. Showing a rediscovered predatory instinct in front of goal, Costa was quickest to react when Hazard’s corner bounced off the back of Calum Chambers and popped straight up into the air. The striker tracked the flight of the ball and volleyed home from the edge of the six-yard box for his 10th Premier League goal this season.
Chelsea could have been out of sight early on in the second half. Just after the restart, Hazard, the main creative force on the day, found Alonso on the overlap. Alonso’s low drive to the far post forced Valdes into another good save.
Pedro, unlucky to not score in the first half, was again unlucky on the hour mark, when Costa cushioned a header from a David Luiz cross into the path of the Spaniard, and his powerful shot rattled the crossbar.
Boro were unfazed by all of this, and continued to come forward with pace, though their decision making and final ball let them down on many occasions.
But on 78 minutes, Traore and Negredo combined for their best chance of the match. Traore’s pace and trickery caused the Blues a few troubles all night, and he once again found himself galloping free down the wing. His cross to Negredo was behind the Spaniard, but Negredo cleverly controlled the pass with his heel, flicking it into air, and volleyed a low shot that Thibault Courtois had to save.
Boro continued to press and look for an equaliser, but Conte, perhaps sensing their intent, chose to shut up shop, and the final 10 minutes passed with few real threats to the Chelsea goal.
Six clean sheets in six matches since the switch to 3-4-3 should make Conte a very happy manager, but the performance wasn’t to the standard that Chelsea have set in recent weeks, so there is still work to be done. Next on the horizon for the Blues: a visit from Tottenham this Saturday and a true test of this side in this system.