Chelsea Cruises, and It’s All Over but the Critiquing

Chelsea will be champion, Conte knows that; this was, by some distance, the most exacting test left to the club, and it was passed with comparative ease. Chelsea now remains four points ahead of its nearest challenger, after Tottenham defeated Arsenal in their London derby a couple of hours after Conte’s celebration in Liverpool.

There are four games left. Three of Chelsea’s are at home, against some of the Premier League’s lesser lights. Convention dictates that Conte talk about “taking it game by game,” demanding that his players should not get ahead of themselves, but these are just platitudes now.

Perhaps if the situation were reversed — if Tottenham was leading Chelsea — it would be different. Maybe if Liverpool or Manchester City or Arsenal were sitting at the summit, then there would still be room for doubt.

All of those teams, after all, are cast in the modern Premier League mold. At their best, they are vibrant, exciting, brash. They are all capable of playing more thrilling soccer than Chelsea, built to be efficient and effective and only rarely beautiful.

But they are also more fragile, more flawed, more prone to error, more susceptible to pressure. They might melt in the heat of a title race, even a heavily handicapped one. Chelsea is cut from rather different cloth.

Given that Conte’s team has now led the Premier League for 20 games — it went to the top of the table on Dec. 11, and has not offered so much as a chink of light since — and has looked unassailable for months, it is curious that so much of the praise it has received has, on the surface, been so qualified.

“The main thing you notice about Chelsea this season is that they are very fit,” said Slaven Bilic, the West Ham United manager. “They work hard, they are very solid and on top of that, they have that quality up front which is basically making the difference in every game. If you compare them with the other title contenders, Chelsea is more solid than Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool.”

It was not exactly a paean to greatness, and it was far from unique. José Mourinho’s suggestion that Chelsea is just an “amazing defensive team” can probably be discounted as partisan politics; Pep Guardiola’s assertion that it is only efficiency in “both boxes” that has separated Chelsea from its rivals should be treated with similar caution.

But there are others — far less self-interested observers — who have made the same point. Claude Puel of Southampton described Chelsea as playing with a “strong defense and counterattack.” Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe talks about Chelsea “doing very well, with the system they play.” Burnley’s Sean Dyche fixated on Conte’s players’ fitness, too.

Everton’s Ronald Koeman, in defeat here Sunday, suggested Chelsea did not need to…

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