Chelsea ease that bit closer to the title, but only after more of a fight than might have been expected against Southampton. They did eventually raise it when they needed, in that efficient way they have so regularly managed since the turn of the year, as the manager’s decision to rest his attacking stars for this 4-2 victory more than paid off.
Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were all restored to the side after being rested for Saturday’s FA Cup win over title rivals Tottenham Hotspur and, having come on to help win that game, all combined here to decisively win this one. Costa more than stood out, as he offered his most complete display for months by setting up Hazard’s opening strike and then scoring his own first in eight games before adding another right at the death. It was no more than the Spanish forward deserved, as he had rediscovered his rhythm, but not quite what Southampton deserved.
They had really made Chelsea work for an hour, as illustrated by the manner of the true clinching goal. Defender Gary Cahill was willing to put his head where others were putting their feet, to force Chelsea over the line.
Nevertheless, after scoring four fine goals to secure this supreme win, they now only need four wins to secure the title.
It initially seemed like it was going to be one of the dullest games possible, as Chelsea got themselves into what had seemed the best position possible for this point of a title run-in: 1-0 thanks to an early goal, against a mid-table team with nothing to play for.
The way Conte’s side scored that fifth-minute strike only emphasised that, despite its high technical quality. Sure, Diego Costa had done very well with his delayed ball and Hazard even better with his excellent drilled finish into the corner, but they were both given plenty of space and time.
It seemed only a matter of time until Chelsea added to that, to make it a proper procession, but it was to be anything but. Southampton made the first half a real fight, as they soon realised Thibaut Courtois’s fragile defence was there to be got at.
There had already been warning in the manner that Jack Stephens got in on goal even before Hazard’s strike, but Chelsea were still caught almost completely unaware and lax for Oriol Romeu’s 24th-minute equaliser.
As was all too typical for a defence that hasn’t kept a clean sheet in 11 Premier League games now, it was actually one of the leaders’ own defenders that teed it up, Cesar Azpilicueta heading a James Ward-Prowse corner on to Manolo Gabbiadini. The forward showed fine composure to control the ball in such a tight space, before his shot from a tight angle cannoned off Courtois to Romeu to score from close range.
Southampton went closer to the next goal than Chelsea, until the champions elect at last sparked into life. It was, not unpredictably, an N’Golo Kante burst that jolted them back into the life and set the pace for a flurry of attacking. Costa appealed for a penalty, Nemanja Matic went narrowly wide when attempting another screamer and Hazard cut back into the box when he probably should have just shot.
It looked like it could be one of those nights, but then it also looked like one break might do it. They got it when a corner ended up at the feet of Kante. He curled it back, Alonso headed it across goal and Cahill showed immense bravery to get his head to the ball - especially as Costa was at that very second trying to bicycle kick it - and get Chelsea back in front.
Without having been that convincing, Conte’s side again economically lifted it when required.
Costa finally lifted it, too, although there was nothing economical about his display. He was at maximum from the very start of the game. Even beyond his assist, he was generally giving Southampton a lot of problems with his rage and aggression. You would have said it was an impressively complete performance up to that point, except there was still something missing, as he hadn’t hit the target - either in this game or the previous eight. That run at last came to an end.
On 53 minutes, Fabregas clipped the ball into the box, and Costa did brilliantly to get his body around Ryan Bertrand and still get a lot of power on the header. Fraser Forster again might have done better, not that Costa will have cared. He was looking much better after what was just his fifth goal of 2017 for Chelsea.
It showed he had his momentum back, as he eventually got his second of the game and 19th of the Premier League, finishing a flowing move involving intricate touches from Hazard and Pedro to fire past Fraser Forster. The scoring wasn’t quite finished as Bertrand scored an injury-time header. A Chelsea able to introduce John Terry for one of his last appearances at Stamford Bridge still had enough breathing space, just as they do in the title race.