MIDDLESBROUGH, England — Three quick points on Middlesbrough 0-1 Chelsea in the Premier League on Sunday.
1. Chelsea roll on to move to the top
Chelsea are top of the Premier League for the first time since May 2015. Sunday’s 1-0 victory at Middlesbrough made it six wins in a row and six consecutive clean sheets in that spell. Boss Antonio Conte has his team purring, even if Middlesbrough’s endeavours kept Chelsea honest until Jon Moss’ final whistle.
The new leaders had their winner from the 41st minute. Eden Hazard’s corner looped in, Middlesbrough’s defenders failed to clear and Diego Costa lashed home the ball as Boro defender Antonio Barragan had lost its flight.
That was the Spain international striker’s 10th Premier League goal of the season. Like two seasons ago, he is leading Chelsea’s title charge from the front, and with noticeably fewer flashpoints. He has been on four yellow cards since Sept. 24 and seems to have cut dissent out of his game. A booking here would have ruled him out of the showdown with Tottenham but Costa avoided such a fate and kept cool.
This was fifth straight match Conte had selected this starting XI, a reflection of his satisfaction in his players. The decision not to clear out a group that failed disastrously to defend their title in 2015-16 is paying dividends. Conte’s rigorous drilling has taught them to be a team again.
The decision to adopt a 3-4-3 formation was taken in the heat of the moment, after a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on Sept. 24. Since then, it has been embedded with strikingly successful results. Liverpool’s goalless draw at Southampton on Saturday opened the door, and Chelsea stepped through it. “We’re top of the league,” sang the away fans, reprising an anthem of their 2014-15 title stroll.
Were Victor Moses in better control of his shooting — he lashed decent chances erratically wide in both halves — Chelsea would have been out of sight of Middlesbrough, whose best moments came when Adama Traore was in flight down the right wing, though his finishing was also wild.
Pedro, blossoming as the inside-right of the attacking trio, also had two good chances, and rattled the crossbar in the 63rd minute. Blowing those opportunities kept the game more alive than it perhaps should have been, as both Traore and Alvaro Negredo went close in the later stages.
2. Hazard enjoying himself again
This was Hazard’s 150th Premier League outing for Chelsea and it almost ended prematurely when he was clattered in the 9th minute by a scything, sliding tackle by Adam Clayton. The Belgian looked sore for a few moments, his ankle having taken quite a whack, but he soldiered on, though booed by home fans for having the temerity to be fouled.
Chelsea’s formation, in which Marcos Alonso does most of the work down the left flank, allows Hazard freedom to express himself more centrally, with little call for him to track back and defend. Drifting inside, he can show off his passing range, and it was his delicate pass to Moses that set up a chance that Pedro really should have converted in the 28th minute, though Victor Valdes made a fine save.
Hazard is no longer the dissatisfied performer of last season, when he did not score a Premier League goal for 29 matches. Even when not scoring, he is now at the fulcrum of Chelsea’s attacking play, able to pass to wing-backs charging on or linking up with Costa or Pedro.
One vignette in the second half reflected a restored Hazard. On the counter, he rode a couple of agricultural Boro challenges, eventually cooling his run to a standstill before bursting on again. This time, he was felled by Gaston Ramirez’s frustrated hack, but it had taken five tackles to stop him.
3. Middlesbrough resolute but limited
Had he taken up his former Real Madrid master Jose Mourinho’s offer in the summer of 2013, Aitor Karanka might have been working with this Chelsea crop. Instead, he took the opportunity to be top dog on Teesside and appears to have the makings of a team that can survive their first season back in the Premier League.
Boro have players making new marks in English football’s top division. Marten de Roon is an elegant midfielder from the Dutch school, Adam Forshaw a more hardworking midfielder while Traore, briefly of Aston Villa, is a winger of almost Olympian pace. His high-speed bursts always had Chelsea, and Alonso in particular, on the back foot.
There are more familiar names within Karanka’s team. Barcelona and Manchester United luminary Valdes was kept busy as goalkeeper. Ramirez is far more popular among Boro fans than he was with Southampton supporters; he showed both his creative and flaky sides here, when skilfully finding space to shoot at Thibaut Courtois but instead blasting over in the 56th minute.
Negredo, three years ago a sensation at Manchester City, had perhaps Boro’s best effort of the game, when his volley had Courtois at full stretch in the 79th minute. He should, though, have done far better with an excellent Barragan cross in the 37th minute.
And then there was Fabio da Silva, who started the 2011 Champions League final for Manchester United, playing at left-back in the absence of George Friend. He had perhaps the toughest assignment of all, having to cope with the clever movement of Pedro, and the overlaps of a rampaging Moses.
Fabio did well enough in the circumstances, as did Boro as a team. They just did not possess enough quality to trouble Chelsea.