Chelsea bandwagon rolls on as Marcos Alonso double sees off Leicester
If Diego Costa’s reaction to a lucrative offer from China came as a nasty shock to Antonio Conte, the Chelsea manager enjoyed a pleasant surprise here courtesy of Marcos Alonso. The Spanish wing-back struck two goals as Chelsea made light of their top scorer’s absence and inflicted a heavy defeat on the team whose title they intend taking. A later goal by Pedro emphasised the point.
The party line delivered by Conte before kick-off was that Costa was unavailable because of “pain in his back” but the truth was that the absence of the Premier League’s leading scorer indicated what a pain in the neck China risks becoming to English clubs. But Chelsea’s immediate task here was to respond to domestic threats.
Their on-pitch invincibility had been brought to a shuddering end in their last league match by Tottenham Hotspur, who moved even closer to the leaders by mauling West Bromwich Albion in Saturday’s early game. Chelsea’s challenge was to respond by winning at the home of the current champions.
Conte deployed Willian in the absence of Costa, just as he had done on Boxing Day, when Chelsea were deprived of the striker by suspension but still proved too strong for Bournemouth, winning 3-0. Here, too, the relentless mischief-making of the Brazilian, Pedro and Eden Hazard ensured they had an attack to fear.
Leicester were also shorn of key players, with Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani and Daniel Amartey at the Africa Cup of Nations. On the plus side, Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the tournament in Gabon meant that Ahmed Musa and Wilfred Ndidi were available here. Ndidi’s first league appearance since his £15m purchase from Genk provided a perfect opportunity to compare him with N’Golo Kanté, the man who left a void in Leicester’s midfield when lured away by Chelsea’s riches after helping them win last season’s title.
The Frenchman was given a warm welcome back by Leicester fans, who used to refer him affectionately as “the Kanté twins” because his dynamism made him akin to two players. Claudio Ranieri sought to outnumber him here, and counter Chelsea’s other dangers, by switching to a 3-5-2 formation, with Ndidi, Nampalys Mendy and Danny Drinkwater deployed in the middle.
It looked at first that the ploy might work, as Leicester alarmed their visitors with a rapid attack in the second minute. Musa nearly capped it with a goal after dodging past César Azpilicueta but goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois blocked his close-range shot. But then Chelsea flexed their muscles and in the sixth minute Leicester’s three-man central defence wilted.
A cross from the right by Azpilicueta triggered chaos in the home area, where Hazard summoned the poise to apply a telling touch. While all around him panicked, the Belgian tamed a loose ball and rolled it calmly to Alonso, who scored with an impeccable curling finish of which Costa would have been proud.
Chelsea controlled the first half after that. Leicester did not seem at ease with their new system, their discomfort exacerbated by the visitors’ slickness. Not until the 36th minute did the hosts so much as fluster the Chelsea defence again but no Leicester player was on hand to take advantage of a vicious cross by Jamie Vardy, which Courtois intercepted with difficulty.
That faint chance was Leicester’s clearest sight of an equaliser before the break. But since Chelsea had not come very close to scoring again despite their superiority, Ranieri decided against tinkering during the interval, seemingly confident that his side could creep back into the game so long as they did not let Chelsea go farther ahead. Six minutes into the second half that theory was binned. And Alonso’s stock soared even higher.