Antonio Conte lauded Chelsea’s “will to win” as the leaders moved 13 points clear with a 2-1 victory at Stoke that inched them closer to the Premier League title.
Having earlier conceded a penalty, Gary Cahill fired in an 87th-minute winner at the bet365 Stadium to spark wild celebrations among the Blues’ players and staff at a venue where a loss last November dropped them to 16th in the table.
It was not straightforward in Staffordshire – with Willian’s free-kick opener cancelled out by Jonathan Walters’ spot-kick – but Conte’s side emerged with three points due to the type of performance usually associated with champions-in-waiting.
“For sure it was an important win,” Conte said.
“It’s not easy at this point of the season to come here, to play in Stoke against a strong team also with good qualities and tactical organisation.
“I think we showed a great will to win from the start until the end. I’m very pleased because my players showed me a great will to win but also they were prepared to fight to win this game. It wasn’t easy.
“We have played two games away and to win both games is very important in this part of the season. Now there are 10 games to go, I’d like to think that now we need to take 21 points to be sure to win the league but for sure it’s an important win.”
The “fight” Conte mentioned did not cross the line with physical confrontations, though Diego Costa typically sailed close to the wind on that front.
He tussled with several players in red and white and was booked as early as the 16th minute having theatrically thrown himself to the floor and then vented his anger at referee Anthony Taylor when he did not get a free-kick.
Conte credited his combustible forward for managing to keep his cool from that point when boiling point looked inevitable.
“To try to bring a player to be angry and then to react, to commit another foul – it’s normal,” Conte added of Stoke’s tactics.
“The great news is that Diego is showing to be a great player also in this aspect. I know that in the past sometimes he received two yellow cards or he finished before the game but in this season I have to be pleased for him, for his behaviour.”
Costa was the player fouled when Phil Bardsley picked up the first of his two cautions, with the second and subsequent red arriving in stoppage time after he slid in to Cesc Fabregas.
As well as dealing with Costa in one of those moods, referee Taylor made other big calls – ruling out a Bruno Martins Indi goal on the advice of his assistant for a push from Saido Berahino, while the contact Cahill made on Walters for the penalty looked minimal.
Potters boss Mark Hughes dismissed the theory his players were deliberately trying to antagonise Costa and the former centre forward questioned if his histrionics were required.
“We didn’t target him, more likely he targeted our players,” Hughes claimed.
“I played in that position many years and I look at his qualities as a striker, he’s an outstanding striker, but on occasions he’s got elements of his play that he doesn’t really need to have.
“You can still have an edge, an element where you can look after yourself, but you don’t have to have the rest.
“I think it takes away from his performance and his image as a player, it’s not necessary. Maybe that’s how he generates his feeling in the game and when he’s able to produce his best work. I think it detracts from what a good player he is.”