Chelsea 3 Middlesbrough 0
Chelsea: Costa (23'), Alonso (34'), Matic (65')
Man of the match: Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea)
LONDON // Cesc Fabregas has had to bide his time this season.
After starting 33 Premier League matches in each of his two previous campaigns as a Chelsea player, the Spain international has been included in Antonio Conte’s line-up just 11 times in the top flight this season.
The most recent of those came in Monday’s 3-0 victory over Middlesbrough, a result which sent Steve Agnew’s men down to the Championship and moved Chelsea three points closer to the title. Fabregas was the star of the show at Stamford Bridge, providing assists for both Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic and causing problems for the visitors throughout.
This was another reminder of his enduring quality and further proof of his value to Conte’s side, even if he has had to remain patient for chances to show it.
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The former Juventus and Italy manager initially settled on a 4-1-4-1 formation upon taking charge at Chelsea last summer, with Oscar and Matic stationed ahead of N’Golo Kante in the holding role. Fabregas’ relative lack of dynamism meant he had to content himself with a place on the substitutes’ bench, as rumours of a move away before the end of the transfer window gathered pace.
His first real opportunity to impress came in September, when Chelsea travelled across the capital to take on with Arsenal, the club he had represented for eight years between 2003 and 2011. It did not go well.
After Arsenal had stormed into a 3-0 lead before the interval, it was Fabregas who was sacrificed for Marcos Alonso as Conte shifted to a back three in the 55th minute. That proved to be a season-defining switch, and the midfielder had to wait until December’s trip to Manchester City for his next Premier League start.
Diego Costa, left, opened the scoring for Chelsea against Middlesbrough on Monday night. Andy Rain / EPA
That match showcased the best and worst of Fabregas. Chelsea were overrun and outplayed for much of the first 60 minutes, with the Spaniard’s positioning out of possession a key factor in City’s dominance. On the hour-mark, though, it was his superb assist for Costa — the type of pinpoint pass which Kante or Matic would have struggled to execute — that got Chelsea back in the game.
Fabregas’ excellent distribution has been relied upon on several subsequent occasions, particularly when his team have faced opponents who sit deep and pack men behind the ball.
That was the case again on Monday, with Middlesbrough arriving at Stamford Bridge with a mindset of damage limitation despite their need to pick up at least a point.
Marcos Alonso slides in to make it 2-0 to Chelsea. Adrian Dennis / AFP
Wide men Adama Traore and Stewart Downing tracked wingbacks Alonso and Victor Moses all the way to the edge of their own penalty area, while Adam Forshaw, Adam Clayton and Marten de Roon took up conservative positions in the centre of the park.
Fabregas was therefore afforded plenty of time on the ball, and he used his favourite commodity to repeatedly cut though Middlesbrough’s defensive structure.
The warning signs were there for Agnew’s men early on when, in the first 12 minutes, Fabregas sent three raking diagonals in behind right-back Fabio da Silva, who failed to deal with runs from Alonso and Eden Hazard.
None of those passes led to goals, but it was a case of fourth time lucky soon after. Under little pressure from Middlesbrough’s midfielders, Fabregas collected possession 30 yards out and curled a ball over the top for Costa, who duly gave the hosts the lead.
Nemanja Matic completes the scoring to earn Chelsea a 3-0 win. Ian Walton / Getty Images
Fabregas, 30, continued to pull the strings for the remainder of the first half, which also featured Alonso’s sixth strike of the season, before picking up where he left off after the break. His second assist was perhaps even more delightful than his first, as a stabbed pass with the outside of his right foot picked out Matic for Chelsea’s third.
That was the 11th goal he has set up this campaign — more than anyone but Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Eriksen and Gylfi Sigurdsson, who have all played considerably more minutes. It also prompted the home crowd to break out into another chorus of: “He passes with his left foot, he passes with his right, and when we win the league again we’ll sing this song all night.”
With Chelsea needing only one more victory to get over the line, it will not be long before they are able to do exactly that.
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