Johannesburg - It is indicative of Chelsea’s season that the Blues converted their first match ball – to use a tennis term – to win their fifth Premier League title.
Michy Batshuayi’s late goal gave the Londoners a hard-fought 1-0 win against West Bromwich Albion on Friday night and a 10-point lead from Tottenham Hotspur, who can no longer overtake them as they have just three matches to play.
With the final whistle at The Hawthorns were looking for the reasons Chelsea had managed to turn the horror of a 10th-place finish last year into a championship-winning season.
For some, it was Italian coach Antonio Conte, who took over at the start of the season, that made the difference. For others, it was the signings the shrewd Italian tactician made for the club, while others believed the squad rode to success on the back of a spirited team effort. Finally, there were those who said the Stamford Bridge club benefited from not having to play in Europe this season.
It is probably a combination of all of the above.
Climbed the table
The Blues started the season like a house on fire – winning their three opening matches. However, when their next three brought two defeats (at home against Liverpool, away to Arsenal and a draw at Swansea) their fans were worried that the season could see a repeat performance from last year.
However, after temporarily slipping down to eighth after the sixth match day, they continuously climbed the table and, by the 12th, they were first – a position they would keep until the end.
A new coach
After a disappointing previous season, club boss Roman Abramovich turned to Conte and gave him the task of bringing the club back to their winning ways.
Conte, who previously won three scudettos with Juventus before taking over Italy, spent more than €100 million (R1.4 billion) to strengthen the side; bringing in Batshuayi from Olympique Marseille, midfielder N’Golo Kanté from Leicester and defender Marcos Alonso from AC Florence. He also convinced centre back David Luiz to return to Chelsea after a two-year stint with Paris Saint-Germain.
All four signings played their part in helping Chelsea achieve success, with Kanté being one of the unheralded stars in the side. The French international became the first player in the history of the Premier League to win back-to-back titles with different clubs.
Batshuayi paid a tribute to the team: “This is the best day of my life. All the fans will be very happy now”.
After the two early defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, Conte made a bold step and changed his system to playing three at the back and it paid dividends.
He said: “I think that changed our season. The defeats were heavy defeats and I saw that we needed to change something after that. It gave us stability in defence.
“This achievement is an achievement for the players. They showed that they wanted to achieve something great this season and they showed determination. After this win, we must now be very happy; it is for the players”.
Wins this season
In a side filled with stars, the one player who possibly stood out was Belgian international Eden Hazard, who is being touted as a player who could even give Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo a run for their money in the race for the Ballon d’Or.
Hazard, who was the second top scorer for the side behind Diego Costa, said he felt the credit belonged to Conte: “We all know he is a fantastic manager. I think he was the key for the season. Full credit to him.
“After the defeats early in the season, we started this incredible run and then we realised that we could win it this season”.
The league might not be the only thing the club wins this season – the Blues face Arsenal in the FA Cup final on May 27 and, if they grab that, they would become the first club to win the double since the 2009/10 season.