LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Chelsea’s 3-1 Premier League win over Swansea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
1. Chelsea heeding Conte’s title caution
As Chelsea have surged clear of a pack of faltering rivals at the top of the Premier League and the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have taken turns to proclaim them champions-in-waiting, the zeal of Antonio Conte’s pleas for concentration has increased.
On this evidence, his players are listening. Despite being caused considerable discomfort by a resurgent Swansea City side at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea continue to stave off the twin vices of anxiety and complacency that can plague so many teams that lead from the front.
The omnipresent N’Golo Kante ensured that Swansea barely escaped their own half in the early moments and when Cesc Fabregas broke the deadlock on 19 minutes, darting into the penalty area to control Pedro Rodriguez’s pass and poke the ball into the far corner, a 12th home win of the season felt inevitable.
Fernando Llorente’s header on the stroke of halftime was the kind of sucker-punch Chelsea have more regularly doled out to opponents since September, but the sense of deflation around Stamford Bridge was immediately remedied by the scheduled appearance of Frank Lampard on the pitch at the interval.
Swansea showed greater ambition after halftime and, for a spell, roars of belief were displaced by groans of exasperation around the stands as the visitors gained a foothold. As so often in recent weeks, however, Pedro was the man to settle the nerves and switch the momentum.
Receiving a pass from Fabregas, the winger turned infield and hit a curling, bouncing shot from 25 yards that fooled Lukasz Fabianski and nestled in the far corner. Pedro now has 11 goals in 19 matches since derailing Mourinho’s game plan inside 30 seconds on this ground in October, many of them crucial.
Conte, in a pragmatic frame of mind, quickly replaced Pedro with Nemanja Matic but Chelsea didn’t stop attacking and, as legs tired and spaces opened, Eden Hazard crossed for Diego Costa to hammer in his 16th Premier League goal of the season.
Few teams have played as well at Stamford Bridge this season as Swansea, but Chelsea continue to dispatch capable Premier League opponents convincingly even when below their best. The gap is 11 points now and the chasing pack have no cause for optimism.
2. Fabregas continues to make Chelsea better
On the day when Stamford Bridge welcomed back Lampard, it was Fabregas who delivered the most fitting tribute. For much of the afternoon the Spaniard appeared to be channeling the spirit of the greatest goalscoring midfielder of his generation, in addition to displaying his more trademark gifts.
The Spaniard’s first late surge into the penalty area was his most effective but his attacking ambition tormented the Swansea defence throughout. Soon after his bouncing shot was tipped wide by Fabianski, while after halftime only the crossbar denied him.
Conte’s benching of Fabregas for Kante and Matic this season has understandably prompted speculation over the former Arsenal captain’s future, and when he spoke of his frustration at the rise of power over talent in modern football recently, his words seemed those of a man aware that the game might be leaving him behind.
But while Chelsea’s midfield might be more physically imposing without Fabregas, it is undeniably still more dangerous with him. His ability to control the tempo and switch the point of attack gives Conte’s team more possibilities, while his set-piece deliveries — uncharacteristically poor on Saturday — provide another, less heralded weapon.
Fabregas’ 300th Premier League appearance was his 671st for club and country at the age of 28; for context, Didier Drogba was still 49 games short of that mark when he left Chelsea as a 32-year-old in the summer of 2012.
Fabregas’ consistency is remarkable and, as he proves every time Conte gives him an opportunity, he is still a difference-maker of the highest quality.
3. Swansea in pole position in relegation battle
When Paul Clement was appointed Swansea manager at the beginning of January, reservations about his ability to succeed in the Premier League were compounded by a nightmarish run of fixtures that pitted them against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea within the space of seven games.
Swansea had taken 13 points prior to visiting Stamford Bridge and, until Pedro beat Fabianski, looked good value to repeat the draw they earned against Chelsea at the Liberty Stadium in September — and might have got more had Cesar Azpilicueta been penalised for a handball in the penalty area.
Clement stated his desire to reinstate “the Swansea way” of playing on his appointment, but his biggest achievement so far has been organising what was one of the most chaotic and leaky defences in the Premier League until the turn of the year.
Chelsea did not struggle for chances in either half at Stamford Bridge, but a combination of poor finishing and dogged last-ditch defending kept Swansea in the match, while Llorente further underlined why Conte was interested in signing him in January.
Despite their defeat, Swansea sit three points above the relegation zone, and their next four matches are against Burnley, Hull City, Bournemouth and Middlesbrough. Even if Leicester City’s underachieving players rediscover some form now Claudio Ranieri is gone, Clement’s team have the belief and momentum to be confident that it won’t be at the expense of them.
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.