Judging by the celebrations at the end, the Chelsea players and their fans think it is all over. After this, it probably is. Not just because Everton seemed to represent the only serious obstacle to a smooth run-in, but because Chelsea already have the look of champions.
The very best sides, it is often said, have a hundred different ways of winning a match.
While this was billed as a showdown between Diego Costa and Romelu Lukaku, perhaps even as an audition for the latter in the event of Chelsea having to look around for a new striker in summer, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. The two leading scorers for their respective clubs both ended up having undistinguished games, by their normal high standards.
Lukaku in particular will be disappointed at drawing a blank at Goodison for the first time in 2017 when his former club were providing the opposition, while Costa wasted his only clear chance of the game in the first half and found opportunities limited because Eden Hazard was so closely watched by Idrissa Gueye.
The Everton midfielder had obviously been told to stick like glue to Chelsea’s main attacking inspiration, and he took the instruction so literally it was hard to believe he lasted until the 78th minute before picking up a booking, so often did he succeed in pulling the Chelsea man to the floor.
Without penetration from Costa or Hazard the visitors were struggling to make their superiority count for over an hour, until the deadlock was broken by a player who has just gone eight games without a goal. You would never have guessed from the authority with which Pedro found the target from outside the area, and suddenly Everton’s eight home wins on the bounce and Ronald Koeman’s slightly rash boast that only Barcelona have scored more goals at home this season began to look inadequate.
“We did a good job until Pedro put us behind, but Chelsea have the ability to win games even when they are not playing at their highest level,” Koeman said, neatly summing up what it is that separates champions from the rest.
“They have that quality, and once they are ahead they know how to kill the game.”
Though Everton hit a post in the opening minutes they never really looked like answering Pedro’s strike, and inevitably left gaps at the back as they tried to send more men forward in search of an equaliser.
Koeman was pleased with Gueye’s marking job on Hazard, claiming Everton had succeeded in neutralising one of Chelsea’s strengths, though in point of fact that statement only held true for 78 minutes. Once Gueye went into the book for one desperate lunge too many at Hazard, the Chelsea player took the free-kick himself and successfully outwitted Maarten Stekelenburg with a disguised shot that the goalkeeper could not hold at the near post. Job done, or rather completed by Gary Cahill’s knee, Hazard was withdrawn, and Antonio Conte can do so little wrong at the moment that two of his substitutes managed to combine for the third goal.
“We are having a great season,” Conte said, a little unnecessarily. “Pedro is having a fantastic season, but don’t forget he used to play for Barcelona, so perhaps we should expect goals of that quality. He’s a great player.”
Few would disagree, though Pedro was finding game time difficult to come by before Conte’s arrival at Stamford Bridge.
Now it is Willian who is missing out yet even in the few minutes he was allowed, the Brazilian scored another goal to add to the couple he managed at Wembley last week, and right at the end he missed a good chance to put Chelsea four up.
“It is not easy leaving such good players out,” Conte said, with reference to Willian and Cesc Fàbregas. He seems to have found a way to manage it though, as champion coaches generally do. Conte was generous to his beaten opponents, he knew they had put together eight straight wins at Goodison and even complimented Everton on the success of their gameplan. Yet though marking Hazard out of the game made Chelsea wait a little longer for victory, Everton’s strategy did not stifle their opponents to the extent that José Mourinho managed with a similar tactic when Manchester United recently beat the leaders.
Chelsea were unrecognisable that day, though the hiccup now appears to be over. In breaking out of their shackles on Merseyside, Conte’s side showed they have what it takes to finish on top. It must have made daunting viewing not just for Tottenham but for Arsenal, who face Chelsea in the FA Cup final on 27 May.
Any team capable of stopping Conte and his players achieving the double this season will have to be a very good one. The celebrations that started in front of the Bullens Road stand at the end of this game will surely get louder and rowdier in the coming weeks.