Belfast Telegraph

Blues home in on title as Boro drop

Chelsea 3 Middlesborough 0

By Matt McGeehan

Antonio Conte says Chelsea took a big step towards the Premier League title with victory over Middlesbrough and wants his players to seize the first of three chances to win the trophy at West Brom on Friday.

Goals from Diego Costa, Marcos Alonso and Nemanja Matic saw Chelsea re-establish a seven-point lead over Tottenham, and also relegated Boro.

Conte's men can win the title before Spurs next play with victory at The Hawthorns on Friday night.

"This step was big, a big step for us. A big win," Conte said. "Now we need to do another step. We have the possibility to do this on Friday against West Brom but for sure it won't be easy, because West Brom is a really good team, a physical team and we must pay great attention.

"Now we have three chances to exploit, to become champions. For sure, now we are very close."

Costa scored his 20th league goal of the season, converting a pass from the excellent Cesc Fabregas, and Alonso netted from a similar position before half-time before Matic's second-half goal.

"It wasn't easy, but we did it. I must be pleased by the performance, the commitment, the desire, the will of my players," said Conte.

"It's great to score three goals, to create many chances and get another clean sheet."

Conte believes Chelsea overcame their greatest challenge when defeat at Jose Mourinho's Manchester United last month cut their lead to four points over Tottenham, who the Blues then beat in the FA Cup semi-final.

Chelsea next defeated Southampton before a win at Everton and last night's success against Boro.

Conte said: "Our worst moment was after the United defeat, because Tottenham won the game and to see your opponent only four points (behind) was very bad.

"Then we had to play against them in the semi-final of the FA Cup.

"At that moment we had a lot of pressure, but in that moment my players showed me great commitment, great focus, desire and to try to win the league.

"Now there is the pressure, but now it's a good pressure, a pressure that this pressure must bring excitement.

"The target is very close and we must have enthusiasm, will, desire. My players deserve to win the league."

Chelsea won the 2014-15 title under Mourinho but imploded and finished 10th last term as Leicester won the crown.

Now Conte is on course for a double, with the Blues facing Arsenal in the FA Cup final on May 27.

The Italian added: "Last season was very bad and this season, don't forget we started with a lot of problems.

"We were very good to find the right way and have a fantastic season. We need another step and then to celebrate."

Despondent Middlesbrough head coach Steve Agnew still hopes to finish the season on a high after relegation from the Premier League was confirmed.

It is a record-equalling fourth demotion from the Premier League for Boro, who next play Southampton at the Riverside.

Agnew said: "Everybody's devastated. We've worked so hard for a number of years to get back into the Premier League and we know how tough the Premier League is.

"We've pulled up short. I've left a very silent dressing room. Everybody, staff and players, are absolutely gutted.

"The bottom line is we haven't won enough games and haven't scored enough goals.

"The task now is to put a performance on for the supporters on Saturday."

Boro's visiting supporters were applauded by Chelsea head coach Conte afterwards and Agnew believes the fans deserve Premier League football again.

He added: "It's a Premier League club in terms of everything about it. The supporters, stadium, training ground, the infrastructure.

"The most important thing is we finish the season strong, we make sure we gain more points and then everything moving forward will be towards getting members of the football club back into the Premier League."

The visitors' night began with a bump. A minor nudge in rush-hour traffic contributed to the delayed arrival of the Boro bus.

Agnew declined to comment on the matter.

He added: "Tonight has been very, very emotional and disappointing for everybody and the last thing in my mind was whether there's been any contact on the bus on the way to Stamford Bridge.

"The disappointment tonight is losing the game.

• Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante has been named the Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year for 2017.

He polled most votes among the 340-strong membership, beating team-mate Eden Hazard and third-placed Dele Alli to the award.

Belfast Telegraph


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