Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has urged his side to build an unassailable lead at the Premier League summit after surging six points clear with victory over a stubborn Sunderland.
Former Arsenal skipper Cesc Fabregas, making only his second start since September, notched a first-half winner as the Blues chalked up their 10th successive league victory.
Maximum points ensured Chelsea will top the division at Christmas. Six out of the last seven teams to do so have gone on to be crowned champions, although Conte is more concerned with the size of his team’s cushion over the chasing pack.
“It’s fantastic to win 10 games in a row in this league,” said the Italian. “It’s very tough in every game. You have to fight to the end to take three points and today was an example.
“I’m pleased for my players. They deserve this for their commitment and their work rate. We have to continue on Saturday in what will be another tough game against Crystal Palace. We want to arrive at Christmas in an incredible position in the table.”
Chelsea also passed the challenge set by Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, who intimated this week that the Blues would struggle when either Eden Hazard or Diego Costa were unavailable.
The visitors overcame the loss of Hazard, who was sidelined with the knee injury he picked up against West Brom on Sunday, although Conte expects the 25-year-old to be back for festive period.
The omens were promising for Chelsea, who had won 19 of their previous 23 Premier League fixtures against Sunderland, although it took until five minutes before the break for the visitors to prise open the Black Cats’ defence.
Combative midfielder N’Gole Kante secured possession on halfway before initiating Chelsea’s burst forward. Fabregas exchanged passes with the recalled Willian before stroking home from the edge of the penalty area.
Blues goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was called into action shortly after the re-start to repel an effort from Adnan Januzaj, while at the other end a deflected Willian shot struck Jordan Pickford’s crossbar.
Relegation-threatened Sunderland almost conjured an equaliser deep into injury time as Courtois denied former Blues full-back Patrick van Aanholt with a flying one-handed save.