LONDON: Chelsea claimed top spot in the Premier League after winning 1-0 at Middlesbrough, thus overtaking provisional Saturday night leaders Liverpool.
A first-half goal from Diego Costa proved sufficient though the Blues were below their best and struggling somewhat to cling on in the closing stages.
Chelsea, in fine form since switching to manager Antonio Conte’s three-man defence, made a slow start but steadily grew into the game.
Eden Hazard, Premier League player of the month for October, and fast-raiding right wing-back Victor Moses, are the two players who have benefited the most from the tactical switch. Hazard, released from the need to track back, once again made the most of his attacking freedom.
Only the reflexes and courage of ex-Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes defied them – and Pedro in particular – for the first 40 minutes before Diego Costa scored from close range after a left-wing corner.
Costa, also revived by Conte’s arrival, was thus the first Premier marksman to reach 10 league goals for the season. Chelsea thus completed a run of six successive Premier victories without conceding a goal.
Liverpool lost their grip on top spot after wasting a host of scoring opportunities on Saturday and ending a match they dominated at Southampton with ‘only’ a goalless draw and one point to show for their efforts.
Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho were the off-target culprits after just having returned from 12,000-mile trips to play for their countries in the latest rounds of World Cup qualifying matches. Emre Can also pulled a low shot wide and Nathanial Clyne wasted a header.
Hence the usually free-scoring Liverpool ended without the reward of a goal for the third time this season.
Manager Jurgen Klopp doubtless will be happy that the national team season has gone into hibernation, as far as Brazil are concerned until next March though Senegal’s presence at the African Nations Cup will remove Mane for much of January and early February.
He will miss Premier League clashes away to Man United (Jan 14) and Hull (February 4), as well as home fixtures against Swansea (January 21) and Chelsea (February 1). He will also miss the FA Cup fourth round and both legs of the League Cup semi-final, should Liverpool still be in both competitions at that point.
The match statistics underscored Liverpool’s domination. They claimed 65pc of possession, made 663 passes compared with Saints’ 371, registered 15 shots on goal compared with three, and were 8-1 winners on the corner count. Southampton were saved from destruction by the fine form of keeper Fraser Forster and centre-back Virgil Van Dijk as well as by Liverpool’s profligacy in front of goal.
In the circumstances there was little Klopp could find to criticise in his team’s performance.
He said: “I am fine with the performance, absolutely. We could have scored, maybe we should have scored, but that’s how football is. Very often in my life my teams lost games like this when we were so much better and had many more chances. We didn’t lose this game because we stayed concentrated and that’s also very important.
“Everybody has seen this season that on a very good day we can score fantastic goals but today was much more difficult. So, staying in the game is the best news we could get. So I am not happy but I’m fine.”