The hallmark of title winners

Chelsea players huddling around defender Gary Cahill after his 87th-minute winner as the Blues scraped a 2-1 win over Stoke, despite not being at their best and shorn of their best player in midfielder Eden Hazard. Chelsea next play Crystal Palace at
Chelsea players huddling around defender Gary Cahill after his 87th-minute winner as the Blues scraped a 2-1 win over Stoke, despite not being at their best and shorn of their best player in midfielder Eden Hazard. Chelsea next play Crystal Palace at home in what appears to be an inexorable march towards the league title.PHOTO: REUTERS

Their ability to grind out results is what sets leaders Chelsea apart from the chasing pack

LONDON • Even if Antonio Conte carried on saying the right things to guard against complacency, the wildly exuberant fashion in which the Chelsea manager celebrated Saturday's Premier League win at Stoke suggested a man who senses a title-winning triumph.

The Italian swung jubilantly from the dugout after Gary Cahill had scored the late winner in the 2-1 victory and afterwards embraced players and staff joyfully as Chelsea moved 13 points clear of their pursuers - before yesterday's clash between Manchester City and Liverpool.

It must have felt like a defining triumph for Conte because, on a day when he was without his injured talisman Eden Hazard, the runaway leaders, while not at their scintillating best, dug in to prevail in a mental and physical battle at the home of their feisty opponents.

And it was no coincidence that one of the first players he wanted to hail was Diego Costa, his famously tempestuous striker who, having received an early booking, kept his discipline - just about - under considerable provocation in the Stoke furnace.

"Diego Costa played very well and showed great discipline. It is not easy to start the game with a yellow card and then to stay calm," Conte told the BBC.

"He showed me great commitment and showed he was playing for the team and not for himself.

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    Antonio Conte has set Chelsea a target of winning 21 points from the 30 remaining to bring the Premier League title back to Stamford Bridge.

"I want that from my players and that behaviour from my players."

It is one of Conte's many triumphs that he has managed to bring the best out of Costa, getting the Brazil-born Spaniard to concentrate on goals rather than wars on the pitch.

Stoke's defenders recognised that he was ripe for being wound up after his early indiscretion and succeeded to an extent in riling him.

The Costa of last season would certainly have taken the bait more easily.

Stoke manager Mark Hughes, however, denied his players had targeted Costa in a bid to get him sent off. "We didn't do that," he said. "It was more likely he targeted our players.

"We wanted a competitive game and I really enjoyed it. No quarter given or asked."

Conte had Cahill to thank after the defender fired home the winner in the 87th minute, as Chelsea left it late to clinch all three precious points.

Jonathan Walters' penalty seven minutes before the break for Stoke cancelled out Willian's 13th-minute free kick.

When asked about his side's battling performance, Conte attributed the win to good preparation.

"I am pleased. To play Stoke at this point of the season, you have to be prepared mentally and physically. For this reason, we won today," said the Italian.

"We need to take 21 points for the title win. There are 10 games to go, today was a great win, a good signal, but it is important to continue with the same commitment and work rate as a team.

"We have to look at ourselves. We must be ready to fight. Today we were ready."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2017, with the headline 'The hallmark of title winners'. Print Edition | Subscribe