LONDON • Antonio Conte warned his Chelsea players not to take the Premier League title for granted after the leaders cleared a major hurdle with a 3-0 win at Everton.
With four games remaining, Chelsea have a four-point advantage over Tottenham. But Conte knows it would take only one slip to give Spurs real hope of overhauling them and he cautioned his players against thinking the race is over, even if they do have an easier run-in than their main rivals.
"We have to have great enthusiasm and great patience because we are having a great season, but to become a fantastic season we must win (the title)," he said.
"Now it's important for us to prepare the right way for the next game. If we don't win against Middlesbrough (next Monday), then you lose this great win."
On paper, Chelsea appear to have a smooth path to the title. Following the clash with lowly Middlesbrough, they face West Bromwich, Watford and relegated Sunderland.
Everton manager Ronald Koeman admitted Chelsea have title quality.
NOT OVER YET
We have to have great enthusiasm and great patience because we are having a great season, but to become a fantastic season we must win (the title).''
ANTONIO CONTE, Chelsea manager, refusing to be carried away by his team's imminent Premier League title win.
"Yes, especially in the last 30 minutes," he said. "They are confident in having a good defence.
"They wait for chances and are really clinical. Without playing on the highest level, they still won the game because they have that attacking quality.
"One of the most difficult things is to create chances because they have a difficult system to play against. When they get a little more space they kill the game."
Yet, for all their dominance - Chelsea have now led the Premier League for 20 games, since Dec 11 - it is curious that so much of the praise they have received has, on the surface, been so qualified.
"The main thing you notice about Chelsea is that they are very fit," said Slaven Bilic, the West Ham United manager. "They work hard, are very solid and have that quality up front which is basically making the difference in every game."
It was not exactly a paean to greatness, and it was far from unique.
Claude Puel of Southampton described Chelsea as playing with a "strong defence and counter-attack". Bournemouth's Eddie Howe talked about the Blues "doing very well, with the system they play".
It all sounds, somehow, damningly faint: fixating on how much farther they run, or how well-drilled they are, as if it is somehow cheating, when other, more exciting teams would be more romantic or more deserving champions.
And yet, in that asterisked praise - Chelsea, the best* team in England (but not the most talented) - is the reason that it is Conte's team preparing for a parade and not all of the others. The Premier League fetishizes entertainment, an entertainment that depends on a degree of imperfection. It is teams with easily exposed and easily exploited flaws that provide compelling viewing and storylines.
Chelsea under Conte have not bought into any of that. Chelsea - who with 72 goals are the league's top scorers - are ruthless and clinical and that is why they will be champions.
They do not see entertainment as a virtue. Entertainment is a byproduct, or it is a weakness. Winning: Now there's a virtue.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES