By William Schomberg
LONDON (Reuters) - From the way Chelsea’s players celebrated at the end of their hard-fought 2-1 win over Manchester City on Wednesday, it was clear that they believed they had taken a big step towards winning the Premier League title.
Gary Cahill and Pedro stripped to their shorts and flung their shirts into the crowd, punching the air as much in relief as in celebration.
For much of the top-of-the-table encounter, the runaway league leaders had been second best to City whose elegant passing and long spells of possession bore all the hallmarks of former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola.
Chelsea knew they needed a win to re-establish their grip on the title race after their shock 2-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday which raised the prospect of a last-minute wobble by this year's dominant force in the Premier League.
But far from set the agenda, the Londoners were forced to defend deep against City as David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Fernandinho dictated play for long spells.
"I am happy, it is a big win for us. It wasn’t easy,” Chelsea coach Conte told reporters. “When you play against City it is normal to suffer in some part of the game. But I think we suffered as a team.”
As Chelsea battled to hold on to their slender lead, there were nervous murmurs from the home crowd when news arrived that second-placed Tottenham Hotspur had come from 1-0 down away to Swansea City to win 3-1.
City spurned chances for a late equaliser and Conte resorted to whipping up the crowd, demanding their vocal support for the team as they saw out the 90 minutes.
Chelsea remain seven points clear of Spurs with eight games to go, none of them against a team with a realistic chance of winning the title. The toughest challenges look like being trips to Manchester United and Everton. Spurs have yet to face North London rivals Arsenal as well as Manchester United.
Conte, who has steadfastly refused to talk up Chelsea's chances of winning the title despite their commanding lead at the top of the table, said he would be sticking to his approach of taking each game as a priority.
"The best way is to think that Tottenham could win eight games. For this reason, to win the title we need 18 points. I think this is the best way for us," Conte said.
(Reporting by William Schomberg; Editing by Toby Davis)