Antonio Conte said his team had passed a “big psychological test” as they extended their lead at the top of the Premier League to seven points with victory over Southampton.
The Chelsea manager said the win, which came three days after their FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham, marked a “big, big step” back towards the title after their defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford in their last league outing.
“Against United, we lost three points and then we had to prepare a semi-final against Tottenham,” Conte said. “And then another tough game in the league. I think that, in that moment, we had a really important test, psychological test, and our answer was very good.”
Tottenham must overcome an in-form Crystal Palace tonight if they are to close the gap back to six points, but Conte insisted the title race is not over yet.
“We must think this race is open,” he said. “We reached the final in the FA Cup, which is a great incentive for us, but the league is totally open. But I think we are ready to fight until the end.”
It was also a good night for striker Diego Costa, who returned to the starting lineup after he was dropped to the bench alongside fellow goalscorer Eden Hazard for the FA Cup clash.
Costa struck twice in the second half to end a five-game goal drought with his 50th and 51st Premier League goals.
“I have always said I have been pleased with his commitment, his work for the team,” said Conte. “Sometimes he was unlucky in different circumstances, but I was always confident about him. Now he must continue.”
Gary Cahill, the scorer of Chelsea’s second goal just before half-time, said: “It does feel like a massive step… this result leaves us in a good position.”
Southampton manager Claude Puel was left frustrated by the timing of the goals his side conceded after playing well for much of the first half.
“We conceded the goals in bad moments,” he said. “After five minutes, just before half-time, just after half-time. But we played against great players. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa played well, and they were the difference tonight.”