Chelsea continue title push with win at Bournemouth but Costa's form dips
BOURNEMOUTH, England -- Three thoughts from Chelsea's 3-1 victory over Bournemouth at Dean Court.
1. Chelsea seven points clear at top
This is the point in the season where playing well barely matters. The results are what count. As Chelsea close in on the Premier League title, they are looking to tick off wins. Until they were up 3-1 after Marcos Alonso's guided missile of a free kick, Bournemouth made life difficult, but the leaders stayed seven points clear of surging Tottenham Hotspur.
Chelsea's 17th-minute opener owed everything to a wicked deflection off a grounded Adam Smith when Diego Costa's shot was heading well wide, although a pearling ball from David Luiz to Victor Moses had opened up Bournemouth's defence. A pass of similar quality set up Eden Hazard for the second in the 20th minute, this time from N'Golo Kante, the France international's first assist in a Chelsea shirt. Hazard's finish past Artur Boruc was coolness personified.
There had been an early scare when Thibaut Courtois was called upon to make a reaction save when Luiz misdirected a Ryan Fraser cross towards his own goal. Benik Afobe rattled the woodwork with a volley off a Smith cross when Bournemouth were two goals down but showing absolutely no signs of surrender.
Josh King's 42nd-minute goal was by no means against the run of play, although Bournemouth had their own stroke of luck when the Norway international's lash of a right boot deflected off the knee of Luiz and flew into the top right-hand corner of Courtois' goal. When Fraser, a menace all afternoon with his darting runs, rasped a drive past the post just after half-time, home fans smelled an equalizer, while the visiting support, previously singing derogatory songs about Tottenham, became a little nervous.
Costa had the chance to make it 3-1 from an Alonso cross with the hour mark approaching, but made a poor connection on an evening when the defender visibly struggled for touch. At least he won the free kick when diving over Steve Cook's outstretched leg, from which Alonso rattled in Chelsea's 68th-minute third. Boruc could only stay rooted to the spot as Alonso's inch-perfect effort flew in.
That brought the Chelsea fans back to full voice. "Tottenham Hotspur, we're waiting for you," they sang ahead of the clubs' FA Cup semifinal meeting in a fortnight. In the meantime, the leaders' challenge for the title has dealt with a difficult week in beating Manchester City 2-1 on Wednesday and escaping this tough assignment. Next stop, Manchester United and Jose Mourinho.
2. Costa's form worrying as Chelsea fray at edges
After a long season of being driven so hard by manager Antonio Conte, Chelsea are showing signs of fraying at the edges with obvious problems in attack and defence.
After the two goals he scored against Manchester City, Hazard, at least, continues to rise to the challenge of the run-in. Hazard's goal-scoring spree has been timely. Costa's scoring rate has slowed to a halt, and he has failed to find the back of the net since March 6 at West Ham.
His shooting was wayward here, with Smith's own-goal certainly not the only evidence of a faulty radar. For a player who has scored 19 times this season, Costa appeared a little short of confidence, and Conte raged on the sidelines when his striker was loose in possession. It could prove problematic that there is no able striking deputy, with Michy Batshuayi not trusted to start a single Premier League game.
The presence of Nemanja Matic in midfield rather than Cesc Fabregas looked to have lessened the creativity of Chelsea, but the benched Spain international would have been proud of the passes from Luiz and Kante that set up the quick-fire brace of first-half goals that pushed Chelsea into a commanding, though fragile, early lead.
The logic of Matic's inclusion probably grew from Chelsea's wobbly defensive record. They have not kept a clean sheet in their past nine Premier League matches. A previously impervious defensive block is now conceding goals far too freely for Conte to feel comfortable.
3. Premier League should be glad Bournemouth stay up
Bournemouth's commitment to playing on the front foot makes them a credit to the Premier League and is the main reason for their ability to achieve results like taking four points off Liverpool this season and last month's 1-1 draw at Manchester United, even if it also leaves them vulnerable against counter-attacking teams, of which Chelsea are English football's prime exponents.
A 4-4-2 formation with two wingers and two strikers reflecting manager Eddie Howe's unbending commitment to attacking football may seem quaint and perhaps a little outdated, but it is entertaining to watch; Bournemouth try to give everyone a game.
Not that they can't do the physical stuff. Their position of relative safety, seven points above the bottom three, owes much to Howe's team showing far more grit than last season. Harry Arter usually leads the charge with some roughhouse tackling and received a justified yellow card here for a first-half foul on Costa.
Jack Wilshere, not always a regular for Howe but handed a starting place here, also remains capable of picking a pass and made a series of dribbles into the heart of Chelsea's defence. The Arsenal loanee looks glad for the opportunity to play with the freedom his manager allows his players.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.