Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is refusing to recognise his side as title favourites despite witnessing the Blues surge to the Premier League summit with victory over resurgent Middlesbrough.
Sealed with an opportunistic Diego Costa strike shortly before half time, Chelsea have now won their last six top-flight matches, since a harrowing 3-0 reverse against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in September, without conceding a goal.
The win saw the Stamford Bridge club leapfrog Liverpool and Manchester City and claim top spot for the first time since May 2015, when they were crowned champions, albeit by a solitary point.
Asked if Chelsea are now favourites for the Premier League crown, Conte said: “Now it’s very difficult to reply to this because if you see the recent past, only one and a half months ago, you see that Chelsea had two defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal.
“After these two games, Chelsea wasn’t a favourite or a team that could fight for the title until the end. Now it’s very difficult to change completely that opinion.
“I think we are working very well. I am pleased because in this league, it is very difficult to have this success and to win these six games in a row is fantastic.
“But if you ask me what is our target now, I repeat it is very difficult to tell you this. I want to wait until the end of the first part of the championship.”
Middlesbrough were indebted to goalkeeper Victor Valdes for keeping the scoreline level shortly before the half hour mark as he instinctively tipped over a thunderous Pedro effort following an incisive cut-back from Victor Moses.
Valdes also kept out marauding wing-back Marcos Alonso although Chelsea were to break the deadlock four minutes prior to the interval as Costa became the first player in the Premier League this season to take his goal tally into double figures.
An Eden Hazard corner appeared to cause panic in the home side’s penalty area, and while four Middlesbrough defenders were statuesque, Costa sneaked in to thrash a left-footed effort beyond Valdes, the former Barcelona stopper.
Valdes again repelled an Alonso shot, before Spain’s Pedro crashed an attempt against his fellow countryman’s crossbar following Costa’s knockdown from a buccaneering run and cross by rejuvenated centre-half David Luiz.
In an increasingly open encounter, a surging Costa run and pass sliced open the Middlesbrough defence only for the rampaging Moses to fail to hit the target as Valdes encroached.
Middlesbrough, who stayed 15th and just a point above the relegation zone after their defeat, endeavoured to find a leveller but proved blunt in attack. An Alvaro Negredo snap-shot following acrobatic control, saved by Thibaut Courtois, was their most promising move.