Everything has been going so well for Chelsea recently that, having started their latest assignment so impressively, it came almost as a jolt that they could not build on their early lead and increase the sense that it surely cannot be long before the first publicity-ravenous bookmaker announces it is paying out early on the Premier League champions.
It will still happen, almost certainly, but a lot of credit has to go to a Burnley side who gave the impression at times that they genuinely believed they could register a sixth successive top-division home league win for the first time since Harry Potts’s team were defending their title in the 1960-61 season.
Only three teams in the Premier League have superior home records to Burnley this season and as Antonio Conte pointed out afterwards, it is easy to see why when Sean Dyche’s side play with this togetherness. Chelsea happen to be one while Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, second and third respectively, are the others. In those circumstances it still amounts to a useful point for the leaders, particularly when the game was played in the kind of conditions – driving sleet, biting-cold temperature and a difficult pitch, a long way from home – when champions have to show their durability.
Conte’s men are now 10 points clear and the first chant of “we’re going to win the league” could be heard from the away end shortly after Pedro had given them a seventh-minute lead. Their next five games comprise Swansea City, West Ham United, Watford, Stoke City and Crystal Palace – five teams positioned ninth or below – and unless something dramatic happens Chelsea should have everything virtually sewn up by the time they meet the two Manchester clubs in April.
All the same, Conte’s disappointment was obvious, bearing in mind the amount of second-half possession his team had without managing a single effort on target, together with the way the game had been progressing before Robbie Brady equalised with a peach of a free-kick.
Burnley can also reflect on chances to win the match but there cannot have been many opponents at Turf Moor this season who have moved the ball so quickly and, not that it should bother Conte or his players too greatly, Chelsea demonstrated in the process how absurd it is for their former manager José Mourinho to depict them as a defensive team.
What Chelsea do is break at speed on the counterattack, springing from the back to catch out their opponents. That, however, should not be confused as conservatism. The opening goal was the case in point, originating from deep in their own half and featuring a slick exchange of passes involving Gary Cahill, Marcos Alonso and Diego Costa before Victor Moses was suddenly in possession of the ball and running at the Burnley defence. Pedro was sprinting through the middle and it was a perfectly weighted touch to control the pass and give himself the angle to slide the ball past Tom Heaton.
Pedro’s quick running and directness was a prominent feature during the early parts of a match in which Chelsea managed 730 passes compared to 297 for their opponents. Yet it was a fine response from Burnley once Nemanja Matic’s 24th-minute foul on Joey Barton had given Brady the chance to show off his dead-ball expertise. Chelsea had four players in their wall – Moses, Alonso, Costa and Matic – but Brady’s left-foot shot went round them all to bend into the top corner of Thibaut Courtois’s net. “A sublime free-kick,” Dyche said, “against a giant of a goalkeeper.”
For the remainder of the first half, Burnley matched their opponents and had an outstanding chance to score again when Matt Lowton advanced from his right-back position only for his shot to come back off Courtois’s legs.
Chelsea, true to form, immediately broke upfield to create an opening of their own but Conte’s men were not alone in knowing the benefits of incisive counterattacking and early in the second half, Andre Gray really ought to have done better with his shot after a quick breakaway had led to David Luiz failing to cut out the through-ball from Ashley Barnes.
After that, Burnley had to withstand some concerted pressure, with Barton symbolising what Conte described afterwards as the team’s ability to “destruct”, and seemed reluctant to commit too many players into attack, perhaps wary of leaving themselves vulnerable in the way they had been for Pedro’s goal. This brought Chelsea forward in even more numbers – Conte smiled knowingly when Mourinho’s comments were put to him – and their disappointment must be that they had so much of the ball in and around the home team’s penalty area without creating one outstanding chance.
Burnley now have 29 points at home and if they continue to play with this vigour they will surely beat the 38-point record, set by Ipswich Town and Charlton Athletic in the 2000-01 season, for a newly promoted side over the course of a 38-game Premier League campaign. Chelsea, meanwhile, can look ahead to greater prizes.