Hazard helps Blues cross Hammers hurdle
WEST HAM 0
(Eden Hazard 22)
Chelsea won the title yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Not in the literal sense, obviously.
With 11 games still to go, a five-point advantage and a game in hand will not satisfy the mathematicians. But the pragmatists are well pleased.
The Blues skipped a banana skin. They cleared a potential hazard with one of their own. Eden Hazard pushed Chelsea towards the Promised Land.
The group hug at the final whistle turned into an impromptu therapy session, a dramatic call to arms.
The voice of Steven Gerrard drifted across from a season past. We go again. We don't slip now.
But there is no Gerrard. This is not Anfield. There will be no slips, no mishaps, no soft goals or late lapses.
Chelsea will churn out the silverware if necessary. They're happy to do it the hard way and this was the one to clear. This was the psychological hurdle.
Sam Allardyce's long balls and Upton Park's poisonous vitriol threatened a sudden low so soon after that Wembley high in the League Cup final last Sunday.
But the Hammers' three clear-cut chances were denied either by poor finishing or the elasticated limbs of Thibaut Courtois. The Blues held on.
West Ham surged in the second half and laid siege to the visitors' goal. John Terry and Gary Cahill held on.
Chelsea were again without the services of the talismanic Nemanja Matic, but rising star Kurt Zouma held on.
Resilience and mental fortitude may not present the most aesthetic qualities in a title race, but no club have won the trophy without them, no matter how talented.
In his final years, Sir Alex Ferguson relied almost exclusively on those qualities, stretching his meagre resources to breaking point but holding them together with old-fashioned stubbornness. Unshakeable self-belief was a Band-Aid.
Jose Mourinho does the same, with the addition of the beefed-up Belgian.
Hazard is not just brilliant. He's increasingly belligerent. Tentative no more, he's both lion and lion-tamer. He kills off opponents and controls a volatile audience.
Drifting in from the left flank, Hazard's every touch was booed. He had done nothing wrong. Upton Park was terrified of his talent.
He was kicked. He kicked back. His studs were inches away from a second booking when he took down the niggling Mark Noble in the second half.
After the match, Mourinho again bemoaned the physical attention that is lavished upon his winger.
But Hazard doesn't require referees to slap him with a protected-species tag. He can handle himself.
He left the field limping, bruised and battered as always, but unbroken. Mourinho has taken another lightweight artist and turned him into a bullish Darwinist, a survivor among the fittest.
Hazard started and finished Chelsea's decisive goal, engineering a lightning-quick counter-attacking move that culminated with a rare headed finish.
The goal was marginally offside, but Hazard had earned his luck.
Few wide men feel the raking studs of unforgiving fullbacks quite as often as the Belgian.
The target on his back is omnipresent. He gets taken out in every game. But he never stays down. He's a one-man embodiment of Mourinho's Chelsea - a steely, silky technician who does his bit in defence before causing devastation on the counter-attack.
David Silva may surpass Hazard's invention, but never his industry. That's why the title is on its way to Stamford Bridge.
This was the kind of feisty, erratic, bruising encounter that Manchester City invariably lose. They did. They were defeated 2-1 at Upton Park last October.
But Hazard is made of sterner stuff. With such players, Mourinho is more of a foot pump than a football coach. He inflates their potential. He blows them up, physically and psychologically, and sends them out to silence the most intimidating cauldrons.
Hazard walks tall on the road now. His Upton Park winner was his fourth successive goal away from home.
With three months still to go, he already has as many goals and assists as he managed in the entire campaign (27). His confidence knows no bounds.
Comparisons to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are premature and, at this stage, futile. Hazard is still only 24.
More importantly, Messi and Ronaldo do not play in the Premier League.
In the domestic context, Hazard is better than the rest. For now, that's all that matters.
His 14th goal of the season decided one of Chelsea's most difficult fixtures of the season.
Regardless of results elsewhere, Upton Park witnessed the most dramatic statement of intent.
Like Hazard in full flight, the Blues cannot be caught.
No moody Mourinho, just a joking Jose
Jose Mourinho was full of jokes and wisecracks and even lauded the display of referee Andre Marriner, after his Chelsea side took another stride towards winning the title with a 1-0 victory at West Ham yesterday morning (Singapore time).
The Premier League leaders, who have a game in hand, maintained their five-point advantage over second-placed Manchester City after Eden Hazard's close-range header in the first half proved the difference.
"It wasn't the best game to have after a final to play West Ham," said Mourinho, referring to last Sunday's League Cup triumph over Tottenham at Wembley.
"It was really difficult and the emotion was so high. The players were fantastic and the referee was good, letting the game go and controlling the game with yellow cards.
"West Ham are the best team playing the way they play, but my players gave everything to win the game.
"We had chances to score more goals and, when you don't do that, you are in permanent danger, so this is a great victory for us."
Chelsea had to withstand wave after wave of West Ham attacks in the second half led by the dangerous Stewart Downing, but the defence stayed strong and Thibaut Courtois sparkled in goal.
"In every title race, you have difficult matches to play," said Mourinho.
"You have matches where you need quality, others where you need luck and others where you need to adapt to the opponents.
"Today was one of those and Gary Cahill, John Terry and Kurt Zouma were good in handling the direct football, while Courtois was amazing.
"It was a game where you could lose two points and I'm happy with the fact we won."
Hazard nodded the only goal from six metres in the first half, but West Ham manager Sam Allardyce said it should have been ruled out because the Belgium winger was offside "by six inches".
Mourinho had his audience rolling in the aisles when he said midfielder Nemanja Matic would have missed yesterday's game even if he had not been serving the final game of a two-match suspension.
"I'm going to tell you something," Mourinho laughed.
"He got an injury celebrating the cup win on Sunday even though he didn't play.
"He twisted his ankle celebrating on the pitch." - Reuters.