The Big Match

Cherry-picking time for Blues

Chelsea's Eden Hazard scoring their first goal after a deflection by Manchester City's Vincent Kompany.
Chelsea's Eden Hazard scoring their first goal after a deflection by Manchester City's Vincent Kompany.PHOTO: REUTERS

Chelsea, targeting remaining rivals to wrap up title, won't be lax against Bournemouth

Chelsea are six wins away from a sixth league title. Probably fewer, but in the mind of a man as driven as Antonio Conte, there is no complacent assumption that rivals will fall away.

"We need 18 points," the Italian said. He will take nothing for granted. Chelsea's season had suggested they were immune to upsets. Their week has shown that sometimes the supposedly easier tests can be tougher at this time of year.

Chelsea, the team who had been undefeated against the bottom 14, then lost to Crystal Palace before beating Manchester City.

If Palace's win ranked as the shock of this season, its counterpart last year came when Bournemouth visited Stamford Bridge.

The promoted club's 1-0 victory was rated by Eddie Howe as the greatest result in Bournemouth's history. It also proved to be Jose Mourinho's penultimate league game in charge. One more loss and he was gone. Perhaps, in a perverse way, Chelsea's revival under Conte can be traced back to that December day.

But Howe believes it engineered a belief in Bournemouth that they can trouble anyone. This season has proved as much. They came from 1-3 down to beat Liverpool 4-3 five months ago and salvaged a late equaliser at Anfield on Wednesday. They took a 3-0 lead against Arsenal in January. Only Manchester City of the top-half clubs have beaten them home and away.

Chelsea enjoyed a Boxing Day stroll against Bournemouth, winning 3-0 even without Diego Costa and N'Golo Kante. They go into the rematch with their rhythm disturbed by Victor Moses' recent toe injury.

The wing-back doubles up as a talisman. Chelsea have only lost one game in which he has started. His replacements in the last two games have been the very different duo of winger Pedro and defender Cesar Azpilicueta.

So Conte's choice on the right for this game will say much about Chelsea's mindset. Bournemouth's tends to be positive. Their spring revival has come from pairing two strikers. They flourished at Anfield with two technical midfielders, Jack Wilshere and Harry Arter, doing plenty of donkey work.

Jurgen Klopp felt Liverpool's best avenue to attack a compact 4-4-2 formation was with width, so if Bournemouth adopt the same game plan, Chelsea's wing-backs will assume added importance.

So will their defence as a whole. They only conceded two goals in 12 games in an autumn display of defiance. Now they have been breached in every league game since January. Each of the three Serie A titles Conte won with Juventus was secured amid a series of clean sheets. What little time Chelsea have had on the training ground may have been devoted to defending.

The pragmatist in Conte would settle for a drama-free procession to the crown. But, as Chelsea know to their cost, Bournemouth do drama better than most.

BOURNEMOUTH V CHELSEA

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2017, with the headline 'Cherry-picking time for Blues'. Print Edition | Subscribe