Antonio Conte lauded Chelsea’s “will to win” as the leaders moved 13 points clear with a 2-1 victory at Stoke that inched them closer to the Premier League title.
Having earlier conceded a penalty, Gary Cahill fired in an 87th-minute winner at the bet365 Stadium to spark wild celebrations among the Blues’ players and staff at a venue where a loss last November dropped them to 16th in the table.
It was not straightforward in Staffordshire – with Willian’s free-kick opener cancelled out by Jonathan Walters’ spot-kick – but Conte’s side emerged with three points due to the type of performance usually associated with champions-in-waiting.
“For sure it was an important win,” Conte said.
“It’s not easy at this point of the season to come here, to play in Stoke against a strong team also with good qualities and tactical organisation.
“I think we showed a great will to win from the start until the end. I’m very pleased because my players showed me a great will to win but also they were prepared to fight to win this game. It wasn’t easy.
“We have played two games away and to win both games is very important in this part of the season. Now there are 10 games to go, I’d like to think that now we need to take 21 points to be sure to win the league but for sure it’s an important win.”
The “fight” Conte mentioned did not cross the line with physical confrontations, though Diego Costa typically sailed close to the wind on that front.
He tussled with several players in red and white and was booked as early as the 16th minute having theatrically thrown himself to the floor and then vented his anger at referee Anthony Taylor when he did not get a free-kick.
Conte credited his combustible forward for managing to keep his cool from that point when boiling point looked inevitable.
“To try to bring a player to be angry and then to react, to commit another foul – it’s normal,” Conte added of Stoke’s tactics.
“The great news is that Diego is showing to be a great player also in this aspect. I know that in the past sometimes he received two yellow cards or he finished before the game but in this season I have to be pleased for him, for his behaviour.”
Costa was the player fouled when Phil Bardsley picked up the first of his two cautions, with the second and subsequent red arriving in stoppage time after he slid in to Cesc Fabregas.