Even if Antonio Conte carried on saying the right things to guard against complacency, the wildly exuberant fashion in which Chelsea’s manager celebrated Saturday’s win at Stoke City suggested a man who senses a title-winning triumph.
The Italian swung jubilantly from the dugout after Gary Cahill had scored the late winner in the 2-1 victory and afterwards embraced players and staff joyfully as Chelsea moved 13 points clear of their pursuers.
It must have felt like a defining triumph for Conte because, on a day when he was without his injured talisman Eden Hazard, Chelsea, while not at their scintillating best, dug in to prevail in a mental and physical battle at the home of feisty opponents.
And it was no coincidence that one of the first players Conte wanted to hail was Diego Costa, his famously tempestuous striker who, having received an early booking, kept his discipline — just about — under considerable provocation in the Stoke furnace.
“Diego Costa played very well and showed great discipline. It is not easy to start the game with a yellow card and then to stay calm,” Conte told the BBC.
“Diego is showing me a great will to think and fight for the team. I want to continue this way.”
It is one of Conte’s many triumphs that he has managed to bring the best out of Costa, getting the Spaniard to concentrate on goals rather than wars on the pitch.
Stoke’s defenders recognised that he was ripe for being wound up after his early indiscretion and succeeded to an extent in riling him. The Costa of last season would certainly have taken the bait more easily.
But then the Chelsea of last season were wholly unrecognisable from the outfit who refused to be sidetracked after Jon Walters had equalised from the penalty spot for Stoke following Willian’s early free-kick goal.
They dominated in the second half and their patience was rewarded when Cahill, who had given away the penalty, popped up with the winner three minutes from time.
It was a world away from last season’s match at this same stadium which represented perhaps the nadir of Chelsea’s ill-fated title defence when their then manager, Jose Mourinho, who had been handed a stadium ban, had to watch from a nearby hotel as they lost 1-0 and slumped to 16th in the table.
Conte’s Chelsea, though, have reverted to Mourinho’s 2014-15 model — solid in defence, resilient and imbued with real team spirit.
“I am pleased. To play Stoke at this point of the season, you have to be prepared mentally and physically. For this reason, we won today,” said Conte.
“We need to take 21 points for the title win. There are 10 games to go, today was a great win, a good signal, but it is important to continue with the same commitment and work rate as a team.”
The points gap will revert to 10 if Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur win their matches on Sunday. “I like to think our opponents will win tomorrow,” said Conte. “We have to look at ourselves. We must be ready to fight. Today we were ready.”