MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND – Chelsea replaced Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table with a comfortable 1-0 win at Middlesbrough thanks to a first-half Diego Costa strike on Sunday.
It was the London side’s sixth successive league victory without conceding a goal and gave it 28 points from 12 games.
Costa, the league’s leading scorer, hit his 10th goal of the season to put Chelsea in front four minutes before the break.
Middlesborough, promoted last season, found it hard to make any clear opportunities against a solid Chelsea defense and remained in the bottom six, one point clear of the relegation places.
Despite a good start, the hosts struggled against the 3-4-3 system that has brought the Blues success since manager Antonio Conte introduced it at the start of October after a 3-0 defeat against Arsenal.
Eden Hazard, who has rediscovered the form that made him Player of the Year in England two years’ ago, prompted attacks from wide on the left side and, with Victor Moses continuing to enjoy himself out on the right, Chelsea started creating chances.
Moses, up against former Manchester United defender Fabio de Silva, shot wildly high but did better in setting up Pedro, whose shot was brilliantly knocked over the bar by Victor Valdes.
When Moses won another corner shortly before the interval, a group of Middlesborough defenders failed to clear the ball and Costa reacted faster than any of them to volley home.
It took another fine save by Valdes to prevent a goal within 25 seconds of the second half. He parried Marcos Alonso’s low drive and Calum Chambers knocked the loose ball to safety.
Middlesborough manager Aitor Karanka, appointed three years ago this week, tried in vain to change things with a double substitution, although Alvaro Negredo was unfortunate with a clever volley that forced Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois into his first real save of the game 12 minutes from the end.
“We knew it was going to be hard but we are in the Premier League and one mistake gets you punished,” Karanka said.
Middlesbrough has now lost its last seven league and cup matches against Chelsea without scoring and has not beaten the London side since 2006.
“Confidence and spirit are up and we are playing well,” Chelsea defender Gary Cahill told Sky Sports.
“We are getting the results too which is the most important thing. We have carried on from where we left off at the international break.
“We are happy with today’s work, but the league is not won today. It is not even Christmas yet.”