Chelsea close in on title as crushing win seals Middlesbrough relegation
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Chelsea's 3-0 Premier League win over Middlesbrough at Stamford Bridge on Monday.
1. Chelsea crush Boro to close in on title
Chelsea took themselves within a single step from glory. Win three points at West Bromwich on Friday and the Premier League title is heading back to West London for the second time in three seasons. Seizing on Tottenham's Friday night slipup at West Ham, Chelsea bulldozed Middlesbrough, mercilessly sending the Teessiders back down to the Championship in the process.
This was a nerveless display from manager Antonio Conte's team. Cesc Fabregas, standing in for N'Golo Kante, was the architect of victory, assisting on all three goals. The result was in little doubt from the very early stages.
The champions-elect began with a confident flourish. Marcos Alonso almost scored on a volley in the second minute, but Boro keeper Brad Guzan made a fantastic low save, deflecting the ball onto the crossbar. Fabregas and Diego Costa both missed good chances created by Eden Hazard before Costa broke the deadlock in the 23rd minute.
Flailing at Fabregas' exquisitely chipped pass, backpedalling Boro full-back Fabio could only swing at the ball and direct it to Costa. The finish was placed between Guzan's legs. Ten minutes after that, Alonso got another chance to shoot and made it count this time as the ball bounced off Guzan's inner thigh.
The home fans could begin their songs of rapture. "We're gonna win the league," they bellowed. Next, Conte himself was hailed to the rafters. The Italian has converted a squad that ended last season in 10th place into champions set to win the Premier League with plenty in hand.
After half-time, Chelsea played out something of a victory lap, with desolate Boro powerless to stop the peppering of Guzan's goal. Pedro rattled the bar in the opening seconds before Gary Cahill, Fabregas and Alonso all went close.
Chelsea's third goal arrived 20 minutes into the second half. Another piece of wizardry from the outside of Fabregas' boot set up Nemanja Matic to chest down the ball and drive his shot goalward. That was the third time that Guzan was beaten through his legs, though in mitigation, for each of those strikes, the goalkeeper was left exposed by defenders bamboozled as Chelsea enjoyed complete mastery of the occasion.
2. Stand-in Cesc reminds of his gifts
Chelsea lacked their usual engine. Kante on Monday had added the Football Writers' award to his PFA Player of the Year accolade but missed out with a thigh injury. With Boro always likely to sit back, Fabregas' supreme ability to thread passes through defenders proved a match-winning asset.
Kante's closest rival in that writers' award was Hazard, Chelsea's attacking inspiration this season. Conte's 3-4-3 formation has taken away the defensive duties that Hazard often struggled with under previous manager Jose Mourinho.
Those tactics allow Hazard freedom to seek space. Before Costa's opener, Fabregas should have done better when set up on the edge of the box by Hazard's cutback from the byline, and so should Costa from a similar pass across the face of goal.
Instead, Fabregas supplied the magic here. He has had to wait his turn while Kante has laid waste the midfields of Premier League opponents The creativity Fabregas supplied in conjuring up Chelsea's three goals was an example of the gift he retains, even if he is no longer the box-to-box dynamo he was in his early 20s at Arsenal.
Despite starting just 10 matches this season, with 15 sub appearances, Fabregas leads Chelsea's assist table with 10, and his contribution to Matic's goal made him the first Premier League player to supply 10 or more in six seasons (nonconsecutive seasons).
His future could lie away from Stamford Bridge if he seeks more regular first-team starts, but Fabregas has made a key contribution to Chelsea's title charge.
3. Boro down and out
This was do-or-die for Middlesbrough, and a late arrival after heavy London traffic cannot have eased their prematch nerves. A point would only have offset their fate until the weekend. The aim of caretaker manager Steve Agnew was to repeat the fine performance his team gave in drawing 2-2 with Manchester City last week, a game Boro were unfortunate not to win.
Against City, the counterattack was Boro's main weapon, but Chelsea's heavy pressure reduced the visitors to little but defending numbers. Jet-heeled Adama Traore had been selected on the flank. Boro did not get enough of the ball to release him.
On the sideline, Agnew was in the same perpetual motion as Conte, right to the end, but his chance to land the job permanently lay with achieving safety. Just one win in eight matches since replacing Aitor Karanka, a victory over basement club Sunderland 1-0, has not been enough. Not that Agnew is responsible for Boro's plight; the club's fans and chairman Steve Gibson are left counting the cost of the team's lack of adventure and goal scoring under the cautious Karanka.
By half-time, Middlesbrough needed to score goals to cling to safety. They did not come. Instead, Chelsea powered on for one more.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.