Chelsea responded perfectly to head coach Antonio Conte’s claim their Premier League title hopes are over with a convincing 3-1 win at Huddersfield Town on Tuesday.
Tiemoue Bakayoko opened the scoring midway through the first half with a deft clipped finish, offering an answer to supporters who have criticised him for a series of poor performances following his July move from Monaco.
Willian headed in a second goal shortly before half-time and Pedro made it three to leave Chelsea level on points with second-place Manchester United, who host Bournemouth on Wednesday.
“A good win,” Conte told BT Sport. “From the start we played good football.”
Upwardly mobile Burnley are one place below Chelsea in fourth after edging Stoke City 1-0, while Crystal Palace hauled themselves off the foot of the table with two late goals in a dramatic 2-1 defeat of Watford.
Conte, who has cut an increasingly grumpy figure this season, said after Chelsea’s surprise 1-0 defeat at West Ham United that his side had no chance of catching leaders Manchester City in the title race.
For Chelsea’s fourth game of nine in a packed December, Conte was without his 10-goal top scorer Alvaro Morata because of a bad back, but Eden Hazard shone as a false nine and was ably supported by Willian and Pedro.
“I have decided for this solution,” said the Chelsea manager.
“It’s not the first time to play with these type of players — Hazard, Willian, Pedro. I think they are very good technically. They are very fast. They played very well.”
The visitors thought they had made the breakthrough in the sixth minute, but Pedro was just offside as he ran clear to slot in Willian’s pass.
But Chelsea made their superiority count as they took the lead midway through the first half.
Goalkeeper Jonas Lossl slipped as he cleared the ball and Victor Moses’s header was touched on stylishly by Hazard to Willian.
The Brazilian fed a pass left for Bakayoko to chip over the advancing goalkeeper and into the net despite Chris Lowe’s attempt to clear off the line.
– Dyche dreams –
The champions got their second goal two minutes before half-time.
Stand-in captain Cesar Azpilicueta’s long diagonal pass from inside his own half found Marcos Alonso in space on the left and he had time to cross for Willian to bounce in a header at the far post.
A third Chelsea goal took less than five minutes of the second half to arrive and again it came from an Alonso cross.
Willian held off Mathias Jorgensen and teed up Pedro to hammer into the top-right corner from 18 yards.
Huddersfield, who stay 12th, claimed a stoppage-time consolation when Laurent Depoitre glanced a header into the net from fellow substitute Florent Hadergjonaj’s left-wing cross.
Burnley provisionally climbed to the dizzy heights of fourth place after Ashley Barnes drilled home in the 89th minute to snatch a gritty win over Stoke at Turf Moor.
The modest Lancashire club climb above Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, all of whom are in action on Wednesday.
“Football is about realities, but also about dreams,” Burnley manager Sean Dyche told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“We’re having a real go at what we can achieve this season.”
There was an extraordinary finale at Selhurst Park, where Palace scored twice in the dying stages to beat Watford and leap out of the relegation zone from the foot of the standings.
Daryl Janmaat put Watford in front in the third minute, but after Tom Cleverley was sent off, Bakary Sako bundled in an 89th-minute equaliser and Wilfried Zaha teed up James McArthur for a stoppage-time winner.
“When you win a game in the last minute, it says a lot for the players’ character and it’s great for the fans,” said Palace manager Roy Hodgson.
“We’ve got an awful long way to go, but we are making a fist of it.”