by Tom WILLIAMS
Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth on Boxing Day was their 12th in succession, leaving them two wins short of Arsenal’s overall top-flight record of 14, set over two seasons in 2002.
With each win, Antonio Conte’s side have looked more and more like champions-in-waiting, but with half the season still to go, Chelsea’s players are desperately trying to ignore the hype.
“It’s unbelievable because it’s very difficult to do that in the Premier League, but the team are very compact on the pitch and that’s the right way,” Spanish forward Pedro Rodriguez told the club website.
“Bournemouth are a good team and it was very difficult. Stoke are also a very good team, but we must take it game by game.”
Scorer of two goals against Bournemouth, Pedro will be suspended for the visit of Stoke, which should see top scorer Diego Costa — banned on Boxing Day — return to the starting XI.
Midfield lynchpin N’Golo Kante is also available again after suspension.
Stoke fell to a 4-1 defeat at Liverpool on Tuesday, having gone ahead through Jonathan Walters, and left-back Erik Pieters has urged his team-mates to show more belief against the leading sides.
“Sometimes we have a good 20 minutes, sometimes we have a good second half, but in patches we have been bad — we need to learn to control the game,” said the Dutchman, whose side are 13th in the table.
“It’s difficult because it has to come as a group. It’s a team sport. But I think we have shown we can do it in spells and we don’t have to be afraid of big teams.”
Liverpool’s victory took them back to second place, six points below Chelsea, and they will stage the biggest game of the New Year weekend when third-place Manchester City visit Anfield on Saturday.
City trail Liverpool by a point, having won their last three matches, and manager Pep Guardiola was in attendance to watch Jurgen Klopp’s team overcome Stoke.
– Cech in the chase –
“It’s a difficult game for both teams, but exciting and the best thing is it’s at Anfield,” said Klopp, who sparred with Guardiola’s Bayern Munich during his successful spell as Borussia Dortmund coach.
“I am really looking forward to it. They are an outstandingly good side and we are not too bad, so it will be a nice game.”
Arsenal, two points below City in fourth place, will look to build on Monday’s last-gasp 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion when they host Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace on New Year’s Day.
Arsene Wenger’s side had lost their two previous games and with Chelsea nine points above them, their margin for error is thin.
“If you have back-to-back losses then you have to go and make up for it in different games. Then you can catch up,” goalkeeper Petr Cech told the Arsenal website.
“There are still enough games to make up for our blip and I also think it’s impossible for our opponents to not drop points.”
Palace, held to a 1-1 draw by Watford on Monday in Allardyce’s first game in charge since succeeding the sacked Alan Pardew, sit two points above the relegation zone.
Manchester United have closed to within sight of Arsenal and will expect to record a fifth successive victory when 15th-place Middlesbrough visit on New Year’s Eve.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan netted a stunning ‘scorpion kick’ volley as Jose Mourinho’s men beat Sunderland 4-1 last time out, which was a further sign that belief has returned to Old Trafford.
“We have a lot of confidence now and we’re in good shape,” Daley Blind, who scored United’s opening goal, told MUTV.
“We need to work hard and keep that feeling up and win games. Of course we want to keep this run going and we’ll work hard to do that.”
Chastened champions Leicester City, three points above the drop zone, will hope to chase away some of the storm clouds overhead when they host a West Ham United team who are seeking a fourth successive win.
Friday (2000 GMT):
Everton v Hull
Saturday (1500 GMT unless otherwise stated):
Chelsea v Stoke, Leicester v West Ham, Liverpool v Man City (1730 GMT), Man Utd v Middlesbrough, Burnley v Sunderland, Southampton v West Brom, Swansea v Bournemouth
Arsenal v Crystal Palace (1600 GMT), Watford v Tottenham (1330 GMT)
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