The mood at Stamford Bridge was unequivocal. The final trill from Mike Dean’s whistle sparked enough celebration to suggest that it is no longer a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ Chelsea win the Premier League. But while this victory over Manchester City was, in effect, a title-winning evening it was not really a title-winning performance.
Chelsea can feel they got away with one here, encountering a City side that was a combination of undercooked – as Pep Guardiola’s men have looked for much of the campaign – and half-cooked, in terms of ideas.
Antonio Conte’s stellar first season has shone a light on the underachievement of both Jose Mourinho, his predecessor, and Guardiola himself, another star young coach who was installed at the same time but has seen his team fall way short of Chelsea’s standard.
Some of that is to be expected.
Chelsea have played significantly fewer games than their top six rivals by virtue of being so unspeakably poor last year. The absence of European football has given Conte a lot of breathing space and time on the training ground, priceless if you are a manager drilling a new tactical approach into your squad.
Guardiola, battling on multiple fronts, has had less time with his charges and it shows. But it still doesn’t explain away the world of difference between these two sides over the whole campaign.
On the night, though, the difference wasn’t that big. It was an average performance from a side with purpose and direction up against an average performance from a side who sparkle, fizzle out and then snap. City remain confusing, summed up by Pep Guardiola’s curious selection and his extravagant touchline grappling with his own emotions.
Debate over the Catalan, and what he must do better next season, is for another time though. Tonight felt very much like it was about Chelsea and the final whistle was greeted with more than the usual roar. This, they felt, was it.
Putting 14 points between themselves and City turned out to be easier than Chelsea would probably have imagined. The sky blues didn’t have a clear chance after going behind, the closest being John Stones’ late header that was straight at Thibaut Courtois.
But otherwise, for a side so blessed with attacking talent, there wasn’t that much. The goal came from a Courtois error. Leroy Sane ran through one-on-one after David Silva’s exquisite pass at 1-1 and that could have been the turning point. A sliding doors moment.
And yet it never felt like being City’s day. They felt like the guests at Chelsea’s title pre-party. The evening was not a coronation, but it was the starting point of the countdown to the inevitable.
Chelsea weren’t outstanding but they didn’t need to be. Instead they were controlling, frustrating and strong. As they have been all season.
Tottenham will no doubt be buoyed by their comeback win over Swansea, and with good reason.
But the gap seems too big to make up. Chelsea seem too good. Stamford Bridge seems too sure.
If this was not the night the title was won, it was the night that it was put beyond all reasonable doubt