Chelsea and Antonio Conte prevail despite excellence of David Silva

Wednesday night belonged to Chelsea. It was they, not Manchester City, who emerged victorious at Stamford Bridge, maintaining their seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League table ahead of Saturday’s trip to Bournemouth.

Manchester City’s David Silva vie for possession with Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante during their match in London on April 5, 2017. Adrian Dennis / AFP
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Wednesday night belonged to Chelsea. It was they, not Manchester City, who emerged victorious at Stamford Bridge, maintaining their seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League table ahead of Saturday’s trip to Bournemouth.

City, meanwhile, are left looking over their shoulders in the race for the top four, only four points clear of Arsenal, who have a game in hand.

Yet there was no better player on the pitch than City’ David Silva in Chelsea’s 2-1 success. Eden Hazard had some excellent moments, scoring the goals that wrapped up an important win after Saturday’s shock setback against Crystal Palace, and Gary Cahill and Pedro also impressed.

But despite the eventual outcome, Silva was the game’s standout performer. More important, though, was Antonio Conte’s response to that fact, which ultimately determined the destination of the three points.

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Silva was bright from the first whistle, continually finding pockets of space and distributing the ball effectively.

Deployed as a No 10 with Kevin De Bruyne shifted out to the right, he continually peeled off N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas in the centre of the hosts’ midfield, forcing David Luiz to take risks by vacating his position in the heart of Chelsea’s backline to close him down.

Every touch of the ball had a purpose — including a wonderful return pass with his chest from Sergio Aguero’s clipped ball forward — but Silva, as is almost always the case, was decisive as well as decorative. Although at times he dropped deeper to help build City’s moves, his best work was carried out in the attacking third, where he laid on several opportunities for his teammates throughout the first half.

Silva had a hand in the equaliser, scored by Aguero in the 26th minute after Hazard had given Chelsea the lead a quarter of an hour previously.

Thibaut Courtois’ miskicked clearance fell at the feet of the Spaniard, who drove forward and saw his initial shot saved, only for Aguero to gobble up the rebound.

City had their strongest spell from that point until the break, and Silva was at the heart of everything they did well. A through-ball for Leroy Sane forced Courtois into action soon after the leveller, before Silva picked out Aguero on the edge of the box, with the striker’s deflected shot squirming just wide of the post.

Even Kante, the Premier League’s foremost ball-winner, could not get near him.

Amid his usual frantic arm-waving on the touchline, Conte clearly recognised Silva’s influence and duly opted to stiffen up his midfield for the second half.

Kurt Zouma made way for Nemanja Matic, who was presumably given strict instructions to get a grip on the scheming Silva.

The plan worked. City enjoyed 59 per cent of possession in the second period but found it difficult to prise open Chelsea’s defence.

Silva continued to commit opponents and win free-kicks, while set-piece delivery set up three chances for John Stones, but he was no longer afforded the same room in the centre of the pitch.

The key to Chelsea’s triumph was the way they shut the game down after the interval and allowed Silva to show only a few flashes of his quality.

Conte identified a problem and found a solution, which ensured his team did not let their slender lead slip.

“In the first half we were suffering a lot in midfield,” the Italian explained in his press conference afterwards. “They were finding a lot of spaces between the lines. For this reason, in the second half I reinforced our midfield with Matic.”

It proved to be a match-winning — and perhaps title-sealing — decision with their seven-point lead over Tottenham Hotspur at the top reinforced.

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