LEICESTER, England — Three thoughts from Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Leicester City at the King Power Stadium.
1. Chelsea continue fine form
Off the pitch, stories about Antonio Conte’s position at Chelsea continue to swirl. On the pitch, the points continue to pile up. After that horror show of an opening day at home to Burnley, the Blues have won three games on the spin, away at title rivals Tottenham, at home to presumed dark horses Everton and now, thanks to goals from Alvaro Morata and N’Golo Kante, at former champions Leicester City. This should have been a difficult series of fixtures. They have yielded a perfect return.
Conte, who labelled reports that he had been sidelined from transfer negotiations as, “ridiculous,” this week, resisted the temptation to pack his midfield, as he did against Tottenham at Wembley, and stuck instead with his preferred 3-4-3, using Cesc Fabregas and Pedro behind Morata. Given that Leicester are one of the league’s most dangerous teams on the break, this had to be considered something of a risk, a view that seemed to be shared by Conte from the look of his frantic and frequent demands for his players to get back when they lost possession.
But that tactical ambition was rewarded with a victory, even if there were a few too many moments when Leicester threatened to spoil his day. Thibaut Courtois’ save from a first-half Islam Slimani effort, the result of a lightning counterattack, proved crucial. Sixty seconds later, Chelsea were in the lead.
Chelsea should have done that after just 10 minutes, a trademark dinked pass from Fabregas finding Morata one-on-one with Kasper Schmeichel. Unfortunately for Chelsea, Morata’s first touch was poor and the chance was lost. Morata was frustrated again 10 minutes before the break when Danny Simpson misjudged the flight of the ball and left him through on goal, only for Wes Morgan to ride to the rescue, diving in front of the Spanish striker’s shot. But as half-time approached, Morata made amends, reaching a fine cross from Cesar Azpilicueta and powering his header home.
Kante looked to have secured the points shortly after the break when his long-range effort came through a cluster of legs and skimmed past Schmeichel, but Leicester were in no mood to yield. Jamie Vardy smashed home a penalty on the hour to pull Leicester within one.
With nerves jangling, Eden Hazard was sent on for the closing stages, but it was his fellow substitute Davide Zappacosta who came closer to scoring when he fired just wide from a narrow angle. Chelsea were denied a penalty when referee Lee Mason adjudged Harry Maguire’s handball to be accidental and Willian was denied a goal of the month contender when he curled a late shot marginally wide of the post. It mattered not. Chelsea had done enough to deserve their win.
2. Leicester the hard luck story of the league
You have to feel for Leicester. They may end the weekend in the relegation zone, but they haven’t yet put in a poor performance. They deserved to take something from a chaotic first night at the Emirates against Arseanal, they put in a decent showing against a superior Manchester United and they repeatedly rattled the champions here. They’re just not getting the breaks.
And they can be more than just a counterattacking side, too. Midway through the first half, Matty James and Wilfred Ndidi combined in the middle with short, sharp passes and released Riyad Mahrez out on the right, only to see the impressive move truncated brutally by Kante, the ghost of Leicester past.
Mahrez was dangerous throughout, proving that his dramatically improved performances this season hadn’t simply been fueled by a desire to win a move to Roma. His incisive through ball gave Vardy an opportunity to open the scoring five minutes later, but the English striker dragged his shot wide.
Manager Craig Shakespeare made two changes at the break, introducing the dynamic Demarai Gray and the experienced Andy King, before throwing £25 million striker Kelechi Iheanacho into the fray as well with 12 minutes left. It wasn’t enough. Fortunately for him, a string of winnable fixtures await.
3. King Dave
For all of Chelsea’s big-money signings, it is so often Cesar Azpilicueta who impresses. When Leicester broke five minutes before half-time, surging into the space so recklessly left open, Azpilicueta was the only sentry left on duty. Backpedalling shrewdly, he managed to block the option of a pass to Vardy while still successfully keeping Mahrez occupied. The Algerian winger improvised, playing a neat ball to Slimani, but his compatriot’s shot was well-blocked by Courtiois. Sixty seconds later, Azpilicueta was clattering forward down the right and lofting a perfectly weighted ball into the penalty area. Morata stole in front of Morgan and powered a deft header into the back of the net.
“Dave,” the dressing room nickname he earned because his surname was considered a bit of a mouthful, remains one of the reliable members of this star-studded squad.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.