Marcos Alonso’s first two-goal haul of his career and Pedro’s fourth goal in four games put the Blues back on the winning track in the Premier League.
With title rivals Tottenham and Arsenal having both won 4-0 earlier in the day, and with our players knowing a good result in this tea-time kick-off would turn up the heat on the Manchester clubs and Liverpool tomorrow, there was plenty of pressure on the league leaders ahead of this game.
Alonso eased the tension with a fine strike early on and if the rest of the first half was not entirely convincing, the second half was with Alonso the man to double the lead not far into it, and Pedro nodding in the reassuring third, his seventh of the campaign.
The win was achieved without the Premier League’s leading scorer too. Diego Costa was absent from today’s team. ‘On Tuesday, Diego stopped training with a pain in his back and then in the week he didn’t train with us,’ Antonio Conte explained before the game.
The boss opted for Eden Hazard as the central striker, as he had for the Boxing Day bashing of Bournemouth by the same score, and again Willian and Pedro made up the rest of the attack. The remainder of the team was the one which had started the defeat at Spurs.
Prior to kick-off, there was a minute’s applause for the late Graham Taylor (both teams wore black armbands too) and on 10 minutes, fans of Chelsea and Leicester shone lights for our mutual former player Alan Birchenall who had a heart attack on Thursday, but happily reported shortly before kick-off that his subsequent surgery had gone well.
Back in September, Chelsea started badly in what was ultimately a win in the League Cup here, and tonight Thibaut Courtois had to make a very early save when the slippery Ahmed Musa found a way through on the left.
The response could not have been better. Nemanja Matic made good inroads initially, then Cesar Azpilicueta crossed menacingly and although Pedro could not initially latch onto it, he battled hard enough for the ball to end up with Eden Hazard. Instead of having a pop himself, the Belgian used great vision to play the ball away from goal to where Alonso lashed it low and hard beyond Kasper Schmeichel. 1-0 and just the early boost needed as we aimed to bounce back from that White Hart Lane reverse.
It took 10 minutes for a retaliation from the champions but when it came, Marc Albrighton crossed dangerously and Ben Chilwell rose above Victor Moses but headed well wide. Chilwell was one of three changes made by Claudio Ranieri as he became the latest manager to change to a back-three to match Chelsea.
The Leicester left wing-back was soon involved again, forcing Moses to hurdle his sliding challenge inside the Foxes box, an action that had our player and Conte asking for a penalty.
Matic and Gary Cahill between them combined to keep out a Leicester free-kick in a fraught moment at the back for the Blues, and there were spells when Leicester had more of the game for the next 10 minutes, although it took them time to link an attack and threaten the goal. They did so 10 minutes before the break when Jamie Vardy got behind Cahill and whipped a ball over which Courtois had to react late to, due to David Luiz stretching for it just in front of him. A touch from the Brazilian may even have ended in an own-goal.
There were four minutes to go to the break when Hazard and Willian quick-thinking initiated a Pedro break that ended with a foul by Danny Drinkwater. The Leicester midfielder was perhaps fortunate to escape the game’s first booking. The free-kick played looked a planned routine – David Luiz with a short pass forward to Hazard, who turned it onto the Pedro. But the Spaniard frustratingly spooned wide.
So Conte’s men had to settle for a single-goal lead going in at half-time, and it was clear this game would still take some winning.
The start to the second half was good. We looked capable of worming a way through the Foxes’ defence on more than one occasion but when the second goal came, it was a set-piece that served up the goods. Willian’s corner was attacked strongly by David Luiz and Cahill, and although it was initially half-cleared, it was only as far as our Spanish wing-back and the scoring boots he had brought north with him today.
Alonso again kept his shot down, this time with his left foot having opened the scoring with his right, and it beat Schmeichel with the aid of a deflection off Morgan.
It had taken until 51 minutes for the doubling of the lead. The visiting fans sung Alonso’s name as we went in search of a third. Hazard, on the top of his game today, almost found a way through the tightest of gaps and then Alonso nearly got his head to a Willian corner and what would have been his long-odds hat-trick. Cahill, following up, bicycle-kicked goalwards and it needed a Morgan block to prevent the England defender repeating his famous goal for Villa in his early playing days.
There was no stopping Alonso now. His sweet volley from Moses’s cross only missed the target by a whisker.
There was much to admire about the third goal which was scored on 71 minutes – the beautifully threaded pass by Kante; a crafty back-heel by Pedro, Willian just beating Schmeichel to the ball and having the skill to loft it high over him. The result was a relatively straightforward header into the net by Pedro.
The Blues fans were enjoying their away day. ‘Antonio, Antonio’ was the inevitable and justified soundtrack.
We were back on track, not just in terms of scoring but defensively too. Leicester, who we had also dispatched 3-0 in the home meeting in October, were restricted to just two attempts on target.