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Eden Hazard fired Chelsea into the FA Cup final as the Belgian’s blistering strike ensured Antonio Conte’s selection gamble paid off in his side’s dramatic 4-2 win over Tottenham on Saturday.
Blues boss Conte sprang a major surprise by starting with Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench in the Wembley semi-final as he looked ahead to the Premier League leaders’ vital fixture against Southampton on Tuesday.
But Conte’s bold moves proved inspired as Hazard’s replacement Willian put Chelsea ahead early on and then restored their lead in the second half after Harry Kane’s equaliser.
Dele Alli levelled again for Tottenham, but Conte had all the answers and, when he sent on Hazard, the Belgian blasted Chelsea back into the lead.
Nemanja Matic’s thunderous long-range effort sealed a final date against Arsenal or Manchester City, who meet in the second semi-final on Sunday.
Having seen their lead at the top of the league cut to four points by second placed Tottenham last weekend and looking vulnerable following a limp defeat at Manchester United, this should be a huge psychological boost for Conte’s men.
They rode their luck at times but showed a decisive killer instinct while their London rivals came up short in crunch time.
Tottenham, losers yet again at Wembley and still without an FA Cup final appearance since 1991, need an immediate response in their midweek trip to Crystal Palace if they are to get revenge by pipping Chelsea to the title.
Conte’s decision to pick Willian and Michy Batshuayi instead of Hazard and Costa triggered a round of second guessing, but it took just five minutes for the former Juventus coach to be vindicated.
Breaking at pace, Chelsea worked the ball towards Batshuayi and his deft backheel sent Pedro surging clear.
When the Spaniard was sent sprawling by Toby Alderweireld’s lunge, Chelsea were hoping for a more severe punishment than the yellow card shown by referee Martin Atkinson.
But their frustration was short-lived as Willian stepped up to exact retribution from the free-kick, the Brazilian’s superb 20-yard strike eluding Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris before nestling into the far corner.
Kane has been the spearhead of Tottenham’s impressive run this season and the England striker’s typically predatory finish drew them level in the 18th minute.
But, despite controlling possession for long periods, Pochettino’s side still ended the half behind as his decision to play Son Heung-Min out of position at left wingback was exposed in the 43rd minute.
Kante slipped a pass to Victor Moses and when the Nigerian’s surge into the penalty area was halted by Son’s rash tackle Atkinson gave the penalty on the advice of his linesman.
Batshuayi wanted to take it, but Conte demanded Willian step up and he stroked home the spot-kick in confident style.
It could have been a major momentum changer, yet Tottenham were level again in the 52nd minute.
Barely looking up as he received the ball, Eriksen unfurled a majestic pass towards Alli, who timed his run perfectly to slide in front of Luiz and direct a close-range finish past Courtois.
Conte responded by sending for the cavalry as Costa and Hazard came on for Willian and Batshuayi in the 61st minute, while Cesc Fabregas was introduced soon after.
Once again, Conte’s instincts were spot on and the Italian’s changes brought the winner in the 75th minute.
Fabregas’s corner was only partially cleared and Hazard seized the ball just inside the area before drilling a blistering finish beyond Lloris.
If that was a memorable strike, there was even better to come five minutes later when Hazard teed up Matic and Serb’s thunderous 30-yard rocket sent Chelsea into raptures.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho masterminded a brilliant and unexpected 2-0 home victory over former club Chelsea on Sunday to breathe new life into the Premier League title race.
Mourinho gambled by resting Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera’s goals gave United a win that leaves Chelsea just four points above Tottenham Hotspur with six games to play.
Victory at Old Trafford also lifted United to within four points of fourth-place Manchester City, on whom they have a game in hand, ahead of the derby at the Etihad Stadium on April 27.
It was a personal triumph for Mourinho, who saw his side thrashed 4-0 at Chelsea in October and was branded “Judas” by fans of his old club during last month’s FA Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge.
A wet, cold Manchester afternoon was the setting for United to end a run of 12 games without victory against Chelsea, stretching back to a 3-2 away win in October 2012.
Chelsea have now lost twice in four games, having gone down 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace earlier this month, which will give in-form Spurs fresh hope that the Blues may yet collapse as the finishing line nears.
The top two meet at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals next weekend in what now looks a significant test of Chelsea’s mettle.
United, meanwhile, will approach Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final second leg at home to Anderlecht, which is poised at 1-1, on the back of their best display under Mourinho.
Chelsea were without goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois due to an ankle problem, while Marcos Alonso succumbed to a virus, bringing Asmir Begovic and Kurt Zouma into their usual first XI.
Mourinho set United up to stop Chelsea, with Herrera and Matteo Darmian tasked with the responsibility of tracking dangermen Eden Hazard and Pedro wherever they went.
But despite Herrera’s chief role as a stifler, he created United’s seventh-minute opener, albeit in contentious circumstances.
He seemed to block Nemanja Matic’s pass with his right hand, but referee Robert Madley played on, enabling Herrera to split the Chelsea defence with a sublime through ball for Rashford.
The 19-year-old raced in behind David Luiz before clipping a shot past Begovic for his ninth goal of the season.
Costa became embroiled in penalty-box tangles with United centre-backs Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo and was booked for a late challenge on Paul Pogba.
With the willing Jesse Lingard in support of Rashford, United looked far more lively going forward.
Ashley Young twice spurned presentable shooting opportunities from the edge of the box, while Rashford saw a cross headed onto the roof of the net by Gary Cahill.
Short of a 25-yard drive by Costa that flashed wide in stoppage time, the half-time whistle sounded without Chelsea having offered anything in attack.
Any hopes the visitors had of masterminding a turnaround vanished within four minutes of kick-off in the second half as Herrera doubled United’s lead.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte sent on Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, with Pedro moving to wing-back, but still the league leaders toiled, Pedro twice curling shots over De Gea’s bar.
At the other end Rashford remained a constant menace, teeing up Lingard to bend a shot over and twice going close himself, ruffling the side-netting and testing Begovic at his near post.
When he departed in the 82nd minute, with Ibrahimovic taking his place, he was accorded a richly deserved standing ovation.
Chelsea will aim to resume their steady march towards the Premier League title after an international break in which the focus was on the future of Eden Hazard.
The 26-year-old Belgian star sat out Chelsea’s last game at Stoke City as well as Belgium’s fixtures during the recess with a calf problem but should return for the visit of Crystal Palace to Stamford Bridge.
The forward, though, has still found himself the centre of attention following reports this week he is a target for Real Madrid.
Hazard has been one of the main factors in Chelsea’s dominance of the Premier League table this season -– Antonio Conte’s side face Palace sitting ten points clear, with ten games remaining –- after rediscovering the form he showed in the 2015 title triumph.
Chelsea are determined to hold on to the player but the interest from Spain has provided an unwanted distraction as Conte attempts to maintain his team’s concentration during the run-in.
But the head coach’s efforts won’t have been helped by comments made this week by former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon who insisted Hazard’s future will be decided by the player himself.
Calderon told talkSPORT radio station: “Chelsea aren’t a selling club, so it wouldn’t be easy, but as always it would depend on the wishes of the player. If he wants to leave, he will leave — that’s always the point.”
There has been no indication Hazard wants to leave and Conte will expect the player’s response against a much-improved Palace to underline his commitment to remaining at Stamford Bridge.
The return of striker Diego Costa, who missed Spain’s meeting with France because of ankle injury, will also help Conte’s side pick up from where they left off before the break.
The victory at Stoke was secured by a late goal from Gary Cahill that came as a blow to second-placed Tottenham who have been hoping to capitalise on any slips made by Conte’s side.
With an FA Cup semi-final meeting with Tottenham also looming at the end of April, Conte remains on course for a league and cup double in his first season in English football after leaving the post of Italy coach last summer.
A few weeks ago, the visit of Palace would have been viewed as a routine three points for the Blues.
However, they have shown significant signs of improvement recently with manager Sam Allardyce confident he has plugged the defensive holes that contributed to the team’s fall into the bottom three.
Four victories in the last six games -– each secured on the back of a clean sheet -– have moved Allardyce’s side four points and two places clear of the relegation zone.
New signings Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic have been credited with adding steel to the side.
Wilfried Zaha’s form has helped reignite the debate about the winger’s decision to reject England, despite winning two caps in friendly internationals, and commit himself to Ivory Coast.
Speaking after last Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, England coach Gareth Southgate appeared to suggest Zaha had imposed a timescale for his selection by England.
However, the comments drew a strong response in a statement that came through the player’s agent
Will Salthouse said: “Wilfried did not impose a timescale or set a date by which he had to be selected by England, there was no ‘disappearing egg timer’. The ‘private’ meeting with Mr Southgate was very amicable.
“It was Wilfried’s personal choice and it was his right as a senior player to accept the opportunity to represent his nation of birth and that of his family heritage.
“His ‘desire’ or ‘passion’ should never have been publicly questioned for making that decision.”
Antonio Conte claimed Chelsea can still improve, despite recording his best win as manager of the club so far, describing his side’s 5-0 thrashing of Everton as “fantastico”.
The Italian had been pressed to offer a word from his own language for the display and, having chuckled about the one he picked, then spoke seriously about how the true value of this victory is how it instils confidence in the system and his ongoing work with the squad.
“You have to show that you can win with the idea of playing good football. It’s important to put these players in the best situation to exploit their talent,” said Conte as Chelsea moved to the top of the table.
“I’m very pleased because today there was a fantastic atmosphere with our supporters. We must continue to work together with the players, the club, the supporters and then to improve step by step. We can improve. We can improve.”
It is difficult to see how Eden Hazard can improve, having put in one of his finest displays for Chelsea.
He scored twice, opening the scoring after 18 minutes, before driving home the best strike of the game on 54 minutes after a brilliant exchange of flicks with Pedro.
That makes it seven goals in 11, his finest start to a season since moving to Stamford Bridge.
“He’s playing fantastic football,” Conte enthused. “He’s showing his talent with all the Chelsea players. But the most important thing is that I’m seeing that Eden is fantastic with the ball and he is fantastic without the ball.”
Marcos Alonso hit the second to claim his first goal for the club, with Diego Costa then hitting the third, before Pedro completed the scoring.
Everton didn’t have a chance and, having switched from his own attempt to play a three-man defence as early as the 36th minute, coach Ronald Koeman praised how the Italian ha made that formation work.
“I never saw a team playing so well this system,” the Everton manager said.
“This system is very difficult to play against, the movement of the players.
“Chelsea showed us today a very high level of football – in every aspect of football. I did not expect that big a difference on the pitch, but it happened.
“I think after playing out of this system, five wins in a row, they (Chelsea) score a lot, they don’t concede any goal, it’s enough for them. It’s the best way for them, and of course some key players in that team are showing the highest level of football.”
“How they work, how they run, how they press – we can learn from them.”
Despite the rout, Conte was still reluctant to talk of title challenges.
“We don’t want to send a message to the other teams. It’s important to send a message to ourselves,” he said.
Chelsea swept to the top of the Premier League with a 3-0 victory over Burnley, while Arsenal won 3-1 at Watford to ease the pressure on Arsene Wenger on Saturday.
After a dismal title defence last season, Chelsea look revitalised under new manager Antonio Conte and the Italian was able to celebrate his third successive win after the most emphatic display of his brief reign.
So disappointing last term, Eden Hazard has made a vibrant start to the new campaign and the Belgium midfielder put Chelsea ahead with a superb run and clinical finish from the edge of the penalty area in the ninth minute at Stamford Bridge.
Willian was back for Chelsea after recovering from a calf injury and the Brazil winger doubled their lead in the 41st minute before Nigeria’s Victor Moses came off the bench to net the hosts’ third in the 89th minute.
“It was a good performance. We have started very well this season but we must know we can improve,” Conte said.
“Eden Hazard must be this decisive in every game and I’m pleased because I saw it today.”
At Vicarage Road, Arsenal’s first victory of the season, after losing to Liverpool and drawing with Leicester, should silence Wenger’s critics at least temporarily.
Failing to win their first two matches while struggling to make an impact in the transfer market had prompted some Arsenal fans to turn on Wenger again after many protested against him last season.
But there were no complaints as Arsenal took the lead in the ninth minute when Santi Cazorla stroked home a penalty after Nordin Amrabat elbowed Alexis Sanchez.
Chile forward Sanchez increased Arsenal’s advantage five minutes before half-time with a deft touch over Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes.
Mesut Ozil was making his first start of the season after being rested following Euro 2016 and Arsenal’s German playmaker made up for lost time with a headed goal in first-half stoppage time.
Watford’s Roberto Pereyra reduced the deficit in the 57th minute, but the Hornets remain winless.
“I believe we shot ourselves in the foot in the first game and were under huge pressure,” Wenger said.
“Today we had a good solid performance but at the moment we are not completely there physically and you could see that in second half.”
Claudio Ranieri’s side took the lead in the 32nd minute when Jamie Vardy finished off a typically efficient counter-attack from the champions and captain Wes Morgan lashed in the second in the 52nd minute.
Riyad Mahrez wasted a chance to make it three when the winger’s penalty was saved by Lukasz Fabianski and there was more frustration for Leicester when goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel came off injured.
But Leroy Fer’s 80th-minute goal for Swansea came too late to rescue a point for the visitors.
Danny Rose’s 72nd-minute equaliser earned Tottenham Hotspur a 1-1 draw with Liverpool at White Hart Lane.
James Milner gave Liverpool a deserved lead with a penalty in the 43rd minute after Roberto Firmino went down under the slightest contact by Erik Lamela.
But a sustained spell of second-half pressure climaxed when the unmarked Rose drilled home to preserve Tottenham’s unbeaten record.
“It’s not easy when you play a team that are perfect on the counter-attack and you need to take risks. The draw is a fair result,” Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino said.
Everton climbed to second place with a 1-0 win against Stoke City at Goodison Park.
Ronald Koeman’s team enjoyed a stroke of luck in the 51st minute when Leighton Baines’ penalty — awarded for a foul on Ashley Williams — was pushed onto a post by Shay Given, only for the ball to rebound off the Stoke goalkeeper’s head into the net for an own goal.
Southampton rescued a dramatic 1-1 draw against Sunderland as Jay Rodriguez’s 85th-minute strike crept past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to cancel out Jermain Defoe’s 80th-minute penalty at St Mary’s.
Scott Dann’s late leveller gave Crystal Palace a 1-1 draw against fellow strugglers Bournemouth at Selhurst Park.
Josh King fired Bournemouth in an 11th-minute lead before former Liverpool striker Christian Benteke won a penalty on his Palace debut.
Artur Boruc saved Yohan Cabaye’s spot-kick, but Palace defender Dann spared his team-mate’s blushes with an equaliser three minutes into second-half stoppage time.
Belgium captain Eden Hazard produced an inspired performance, including a fine solo goal, to lead his side to a resounding 4-0 victory over Hungary at Euro 2016 on Sunday and set up a quarter-final clash with Wales.
Hazard, who has finally burst into life at the tournament after a disappointing club season with Chelsea, set up one goal and scored another as Toby Alderweireld, Michy Batshuayi and Yannick Carrasco completed a comfortable victory.
“If he’s feeling good, he’s the best in the world,” Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said of Hazard. ” The only thing we might have done better was kill the match off earlier.”
Belgium dominated the opening stages and took the lead after 10 minutes when Kevin De Bruyne swung an inviting cross into the box where centre back Alderweireld rose at the far post to power a header past keeper Gabor Kiraly.
Substitute Batshuayi tapped home Hazard’s low cross with 12 minutes remaining shortly after coming on before the Belgium skipper cut inside Hungary’s box and rifled home a superb low strike for the third, with Carrasco grabbing a late fourth.
“It was an almost perfect match,” said Hazard. “We scored early and pressed very high up the field. It was what the fans want and what we call a real football match.
“As a team I feel we were really solid today. We made a lot of chances and didn’t give them too many,” he added.
Hungary coach Bernd Storck praised Belgium’s performance. “We’ve never played against such a good team,” he said.
The Hungarians, who lost key midfielder Lazlo Kleinheisler to injury in the warm-up, ceded the initiative early as Belgium found space and set the tone for a one-sided half.
De Bruyne has improved significantly after being criticised by coach Marc Wilmots and was again at the heart of much that was good about Belgium’s play.
He lofted an early shot over the bar and teed up striker Romelu Lukaku to force a sharp save from veteran Kiraly, before testing the keeper himself from the edge of the box.
Predictably, it was De Bruyne who forged the opening to cap off an excellent opening spell.
After provoking a foul on the left, the 24-year-old curled in the resulting free kick and, while his delivery evaded Lukaku, Alderweireld arrived behind his team mate to head home.
It was De Bruyne’s 11th important contribution — goal or assist — in his last 12 internationals, and represented another decisive contribution for one of the Euro’s leading lights.
Hungary were largely reduced to pot shots from distance, with Gergo Lovrencsics and Balazs Dzsudzsak both hoping in vain for a repeat of the latter’s belter against Portugal.
De Bruyne fired a free kick against the bar in the 34th, while the overworked Kiraly denied Dries Mertens and Hazard from close range as Belgium threatened to extend their lead.
Hungary improved after the break as Dzsudzsak got more of the ball and he fashioned an excellent chance for Adam Szalai, while Adam Pinter’s deflected strike drew a fine save from Courtois and Roland Juhasz sent a low drive just wide.
With Belgium failing to kill off the game, Wilmots turned to Batshuayi, so far unused at the finals, after 76 minutes.
The switch paid off almost immediately as the highly regarded forward scored with his first touch, a simple finish following a sublime cross from Hazard in the 78th.
Just as De Bruyne had imposed himself during the opening stages of the match, so Hazard shone at the finale.
Ninety-four seconds later, the forward killed the game with a magnificent solo effort, cutting in from the left, evading two challenges and thumping the ball home from the edge of the area.
Substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Carrasco combined at the death to add a breakaway fourth as Belgium secured a quarter-final date with Wales in Lille on Friday.
Christian Benteke headed home from close range as Liverpool grabbed a stoppage-time leveller to snatch a point against Chelsea in a 1-1 draw on Wednesday after Eden Hazard’s dazzling opener for the visitors.
Substitute Benteke was on hand to provide the finish after Chelsea keeper Asmir Begovic flapped at a cross, but an otherwise damp squib of a match was lit up by Hazard’s first-half opener.
The Belgian playmaker, who has struggled to reproduce last season’s dazzling form, weaved through the heart of the hosts’ defence and curled home a precise finish past Simon Mignolet after 32 minutes.
Liverpool, who stayed eighth in the table and 10 points clear of ninth-placed Chelsea, picked a full-strength side despite having one eye on next week’s Europa League final, but they struggled for inspiration for much of the game at Anfield.
Sublime goals from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez sent Leicester City back to the Premier League summit after a deserved 2-1 win on Monday over lacklustre Chelsea whose march to the title last season seems a distant memory.
The prolific Vardy, whose record run of 11 consecutive Premier League goals came to an end at Swansea City last weekend, beat goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with a crisp volley from playmaker Mahrez’s delightful cross after 34 minutes.
Algeria international Mahrez curled in a stunning second from the edge of the area three minutes into the second half to put Leicester, continuing a remarkable turnaround after escaping relegation last season, on 35 points, two clear of Arsenal.
Substitute Loic Remy gave the visitors hope with a close-range headed goal 13 minutes from time to set up a tense finish but the hosts held out to leave Chelsea mired in 16th place on 15 points from 16 games — one point above the relegation zone.
“We played against the champions but we want to make a fantastic match for our fans because they believe, they are dreaming,” said Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, savouring victory against his former side.
“It is good if they (the fans) continue to dream but for us it was important to make a great performance with a fantastic spirit. Also tactically, I am very satisfied. We concentrated for 95 minutes against the champions. That is not easy.”
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho agreed. “They deserved to win because they were better than us during a longer period of time,” he said. “We were the best team for 20-25 minutes, maybe a maximum of 30 minutes. They were the best team for an hour.”
Victory was extra sweet for Ranieri who was sacked by Chelsea in 2004, a year after Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich took ownership of the London club.
Ranieri had led Chelsea to their highest league placing for 49 years and their first Champions League semi-final, which they lost to AS Monaco, but his reward was the sack.
He was replaced by Jose Mourinho whose second spell in charge of Chelsea has come increasingly under the spotlight.
They have lost nine of their opening 16 top-flight games for the first time since 1978-79, a season in which they were relegated.
Chelsea’s woes were compounded by a first-half injury suffered by their Belgium forward Eden Hazard who hobbled off with an apparent hip problem after a challenge from Premier League top scorer Vardy.
England striker Vardy (15 goals) and Mahrez (11) have scored 26 times between them this season and they again lit up the King Power stadium with their intelligent running, pace and trickery.
Leicester, with one league defeat since losing at home to Chelsea in April — a run of 20 games — had the swagger of side sky-high on confidence and a dominant start was rewarded with Vardy’s opener.
With that sense of anticipation of a striker at the top of his game, he escaped the attentions of John Terry to send a fizzing volley past Courtois from the influential Mahrez’s seventh assist of the season.
Chelsea rarely threatened in the first half and when Mahrez beat Courtois with a sumptuous strike, Mourinho’s men had it all to do.
They huffed and puffed without any spark until Remy headed in fellow substitute Pedro’s cross but they failed to create any meaningful chances to salvage a point and take some of the pressure off their beleaguered manager.
Eden Hazard admits Chelsea are struggling to adapt to life as Premier League champions because "everyone wants to kill you".
Jose Mourinho's side are already eight points adrift of leaders Manchester City after winning just one of their opening four matches.
The Blues desperately need to get back on track when they face Everton at Goodison Park on Saturday in a clash which has added intrigue following Chelsea's unsuccessful bid to sign Toffees defender John Stones.
But Hazard is one of numerous Chelsea stars who have so far failed to replicate the fine form that took them to the title last term.
And the Belgium playmaker believes that is partly due to the extra pressure of defending the title, an honour which leads opponents to raise their game to unexpectedly high levels against Chelsea.
"It's difficult to play as a champion because everyone wants to beat you, everyone wants to kill you," Hazard told fashion website HypeBeast.com.
"We wear the gold badge and… yeah, it's very good. We had a fantastic season last season… if we could do the same this season we'd be good.
"Every day I try to reach a better level. This is my job, every day I try to score. Every game I try to score.
"I just want to be champion. I just want to be a champion and win everything like I did last season."
Mourinho has had two weeks to stew on the home loss to Crystal Palace – only the second defeat in 100 home Premier League games for the manager – that ensured Chelsea entered the international break on a low.
The contrast with the start to last season could hardly be more stark.
Then, Chelsea flew out of the blocks, rising immediately to the top of the table, a position they held on to before being crowned champions in May.
This time, Mourinho's side have stuttered through the opening weeks with the manager admitting his team are still short of their best.
Mourinho has pointed to last season's experience when City closed an eight-point gap in December before allowing Chelsea to break clear again as evidence of the way in which the table can be transformed.
But already the Blues are playing catch-up and a training ground injury to keeper Thibaut Courtoisthis week did nothing to lift the mood.
The Belgium international suffered a knee injury and faces an anxious wait before learning the full extent of the injury and is expected to miss the trip to Merseyside, with Asmir Begovic set to deputise.
Everton went into the international break on the back of a commendable 0-0 draw at Tottenham, but it came at a cost.
Midfielder Tom Cleverley will be out for between six and eight weeks with ankle ligament damage sustained in that game, while Bryan Oviedo – who played at left-back in that match – is struggling with a knee problem.
Against that backdrop, Everton manager Roberto Martinez is relieved to have kept Stones from Mourinho's clutches.
The England international had a transfer request rejected, while Everton snubbed three bids approaching £30 million ($46 million) from Chelsea, yet Martinez is confident his young centre-back will put the saga behind him with no complaints.
"John has gone from strength to strength in a period of high pressure and has used it in the right way, taking the support of everyone at the club and has performed with incredible maturity and composure," he said.
"Any story or any backlash still from the transfer window I am not going to entertain.
"Our interest is to look after every player who represents the club, they need understanding and we are going to look after the human being as well as we look after the footballer."
Eden Hazard scored the only goal as Chelsea beat Crystal Palace 1-0 at a festive, sun-soaked Stamford Bridge on Sunday to claim their first Premier League title since 2010.
The Belgian headed in after Julian Speroni had parried his self-won penalty late in the first half to register his 19th goal of the season and carry Jose Mourinho’s side over the line with three games to spare.
Chelsea preserved their 13-point lead over outgoing champions Manchester City, who won 1-0 at Tottenham Hotspur, and moved 16 points clear of Arsenal, who visit Hull City on Monday, meaning they can no longer be caught.
“Every title is a consequence of hard work and a reason to be happy and proud,” said Mourinho, who has now won three league titles with Chelsea after previous successes in 2005 and 2006 during his first spell at the club.
“I can’t evaluate and say which one was more important. This was my last title and I will try to get another one.
“The group starts with the League Cup and the Premier League, but we know in future it’s very difficult and other teams will come even stronger.
“England’s not the best country to be a force and dominate football.”
The title success, the club’s fifth in total, follows Chelsea’s triumph over Tottenham in the League Cup final and sets the seal on a campaign they have dominated from start to finish.
The title-clinching win was characteristic of Chelsea’s gritty recent displays and it gave Mourinho the eighth league crown of his managerial career.
“It’s been five years since we’ve won it,” captain John Terry, who has led Chelsea to four of their five league titles, told Sky Sports during a post-match interview on a pitch strewn with blue and white ticker-tape.
“The first one (in 2005) was special and when you go four or five years without it, it hurts. So I’ll really enjoy it today.”
Hazard, recently voted Player of the Year by the Professional Footballers’ Association, said: “We deserve to be champions, and everyone at Chelsea is happy today.
“I know the team need me and a player like me. I am here to score, and this season all the players did well.”
Mourinho sent his side out with a succinct message in the match-day programme — “Three more points to be champions. Let’s do it together.” — but it took the hosts a while to get going.
With Didier Drogba dropping deep up front, Chelsea struggled to get in behind the visitors, who posed a threat on the break through the quicksilver dribbling of left-winger Wilfried Zaha.
When Chelsea did begin to create chances, they found Palace goalkeeper Speroni in jittery form.
The Argentine was obliged to save at his near post from Nemanja Matic after failing to claim a Cesc Fabregas free-kick, while another set-piece saw him unconvincingly fumble away a shot from Drogba.
It required a trademark, full-bodied block from Terry, meanwhile, to prevent Jason Puncheon giving Palace the lead, the ball flicking away off the Chelsea captain’s arm.
But on the cusp of half-time, Hazard, as he has done so often this season, supplied the breakthrough.
Despite minimal contact, James McArthur was adjudged to have impeded the Belgium forward in the penalty area as he burst onto Willian’s back-heel.
Hazard took the penalty himself and although Speroni blocked his initial shot — the first time he has failed to score from the spot in 10 attempts in the Premier League — he followed in to head home.
Chelsea’s fans spent part of the second half addressing odes to their club’s former stars, but Thibaut Courtois had to save decisively from Zaha before the champagne could be uncorked.
Palace have now lost three games in succession, but with survival long since secure, even their fans left the Bridge with smiles on their faces.
“I feel a little bit hard done by,” said Palace manager Alan Pardew on the penalty incident.
“But it’s not about us today. We gave a great account of ourselves.”
Chelsea’s Belgium forward Eden Hazard won England’s PFA player of the year award ahead of Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane and Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea on Sunday.
England striker Kane, 21, was voted young player of the year at the Professional Footballers’ Association awards dinner with Hazard, 24, second and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, 22, third.
“I’m very happy,” Hazard said. “One day I wanted to be the best and this is what I did this season, I played very well, Chelsea played very well. I don’t know if I deserved to win but it’s good for me,” the Belgian added.
“It’s better to be voted for by the players because they know everything about football,” added Hazard, who has played in all of table-topping Chelsea’s 33 Premier League games this season, scoring 13 goals and 18 in all competitions.
“Personally I have played a good season, I have been there in the big games and I scored a lot of important goals, this is why I’m better this season.”
Hazard has already helped Chelsea win the League Cup this term and they are two wins away from clinching the Premier League title for the first time since 2010.
Kane, who scored 79 seconds into his England debut, is the second-highest scorer in the league with 20 goals, one behind Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, and has 30 in all competitions.
“Amazing. A very proud moment for myself and my family as well. Hopefully, the first of many (awards) to come. I’ve got to keep working hard but to be recognised by the players is something special and definitely a night I won’t forget.
“I’ve always believed in my ability and wanted to get the chance to prove myself. I’ve managed to ride the wave and this season has got better and better and this has topped it off. This is hopefully the beginning and there’s more to come.”
Eden Hazard and Nemanja Matic are the two players who make things tick for Premier League leaders Chelsea, according to former Stamford Bridge defender Mario Melchiot.
The ex-Dutch international right back returned to his old hunting ground on Saturday to watch the Londoners go seven points clear at the top of the table with a 2-1 victory over Stoke City.
Hazard opened the scoring for Jose Mourinho’s men with a first-half penalty and the Belgium playmaker also laid on the winner for Loic Remy in the second period.
“I am a big fan of Hazard,” Melchiot told Reuters in an interview. “Whenever I watch Chelsea play I always feel when he gets on the ball they really start clicking.
“If you look at the way Mourinho has always played with his teams, he always has one star,” added the dread-locked Dutchman in reference to the former Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Porto manager.
“If you go back through his history he creates a star and that man is always very, very important and Hazard at this point is the guy he has picked.”
Melchiot says Hazard is Chelsea’s most creative influence but the collective strength of the team is underpinned by the power of 6-foot-4 (1.94-metre) Serbian international Matic in the holding midfielder’s role.
“Cesc Fabregas is one of the architects in the middle but at this point the player who is really important in midfield is Matic,” explained the 38-year-old Dutchman who won 22 caps for his country.
“When the towering Peter Crouch came on as a late substitute for Stoke you could see the job Matic was doing to protect Chelsea.
“This team depends on his positioning and the way he makes the team so strong defensively. Then, going forward it’s all about Hazard,” Melchiot said.
“That’s why sometimes they miss a little bit of balance because they also need someone on the right who can create as much difficulty and problems for the opposition as Hazard does on the left.”
Neither Chelsea nor Stoke were at their best on Saturday and Melchiot identified the international break as one of the reasons.
“The game started off well for 20, 25 minutes and then it slowed down a little bit,” said the Dutchman who made 165 appearances for the London club between 1999 and 2004.
“Sometimes when you see players come back from internationals and they don’t get a goal in the first 20 to 25 minutes they can start to struggle.
“I had the same problem when I was playing. It’s something that will never go away from the game.”
Melchiot has been out of football since retiring four years ago and has no ambitions to become a manager or coach.
“I work for Fox Sports, I enjoy my life, I travel, I talk about the game, I love the game and I will always be part of the game but not as a coach,” said the former Ajax Amsterdam, Stade Rennes, Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic defender.
“But if I change my mind it will be to work with children. I love the emotion of a child, to make him or her feel welcomed and loved and to understand the game but when it comes to the top level I just enjoy being a fan.”
Melchiot was not planning to visit Stamford Bridge at the weekend but he did so as a treat for his mum.
“I was asked in the morning if I wanted to go to the game and I said no but, I was with my mum, and she really wanted to go so at the last minute I made a call to the stadium and I got one of the best seats,” he joked.
“My mum is a very big Chelsea fan. Playing for this team made me who I am today. Wherever I go in the world people recognise me for what I did in England and that started off for me at Chelsea and that’s why I will always be grateful to them.”
Jose Mourinho believes he owes a debt to Loic Remy after the striker came off the bench to score the winner in the 3-2 victory over Hull City on Sunday that moves Chelsea six points clear in the Premier League title race.
The French striker, who has been used mainly as a substitute by the Chelsea manager following his move from Queens Park Rangers in August, came on at the KC Stadium after 75 minutes following Diego Costa’s hamstring injury.
The 28-year-old then scored with his first touch to put Chelsea back in front after they had squandered a 2-0 lead, a goal which allowed the Londoners to regain their six point lead over Manchester City.
“Every time he plays, he’s there. He probably deserves more than what I’ve given him,” an admiring Mourinho told Chelsea’s official website.
“Sometimes a coach can feel he owes something to a player and with Remy that’s the case. I think I owe him something. Every time he plays he gives us a lot, I’m so happy for him because he deserves it.”
Mourinho’s side may boast a healthy lead and a game in hand advantage over City, but the Portuguese coach is taking nothing for granted in Chelsea’s attempt to win their first league title since 2010.
“The title race should be over, in normal conditions,” he said. “The reality is that we have a six point lead, the best situation we’ve had all season.
“At this moment, we have a six-point lead with one match in hand, which could help us or not. I’m pretty confident, I believe in my players, I believe we can do it but I know it’s difficult.”
Despite letting their two-goal lead slip in 74 seconds when Ahmed Elmohamady pulled a goal back and Abel Hernandez capitalised on an error by Chelsea goalkeeper Courtois, Mourinho was pleased with the performance.
“We let the lead go but we played fantastic football with the ball from the first minute,” Mourinho said.
“When at half time, it’s 2-2 and you want to win the game, the most important thing is to play how we did from the start, that’s what I told the players.
“From the first minute of the second half, we went back to quality football, creation and movement. Sooner or later, the goal was going to arrive.”