Chelsea boosted their chances of securing Champions League football next season with victory over Watford at Stamford Bridge to move up to third in the Premier League.
After quiet first half, Chelsea scored twice within three minutes early in the second period through headers by Ruben Loftus-Cheek and David Luiz.
Gonzalo Higuain sealed the points with a neat finish from Pedro’s pass for his fifth goal for the club.
The win moves Chelsea one point ahead of Tottenham and five points clear of fifth-placed Arsenal, who host Brighton later on Sunday.
FA Cup finalists Watford started brightly, going close through Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu, but were left to rue their slow start to the second half that saw Chelsea quickly take the game away from them.
The Hornets, who stay 10th, have now won just one of their past five Premier League games since their FA Cup semi-final victory over Wolves last month.
Chelsea maintain top-four push going into critical week
Chelsea’s Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt is finely poised at 1-1 after the first leg, but Maurizio Sarri could not afford to rest players as he looked to maintain their push for a top-four finish.
The Chelsea boss says that he wants to treat all his remaining games “with the same importance”. It is a delicate balancing act for the Italian, who said he left Eden Hazard out of the starting line-up in Frankfurt on Thursday to keep him fresh for their bid to qualify for the Champions League.
Despite the presence of the influential Belgian against Watford, Chelsea began the game sluggishly, with their only shot in target in the first half a chip from Jorginho that was awkwardly palmed away by Ben Foster.
Chelsea also suffered a blow early on when N’Golo Kante was forced off through injury and had to be replaced by Loftus-Cheek.
There was a smattering of boos from the home fans at the half-time whistle. But whatever Sarri said at the break had the desired effect as his side scored two quick-fire goals to take command of the game.
Hazard was the architect of both, his searching cross from the right following a short corner finding the head of Loftus-Cheek, who headed home his ninth goal of the season. Three minutes later, Hazard’s corner found the unmarked Luiz, who powered another header past Foster.
Pedro and Higuain both drew smart stops from the Watford goalkeeper before the Argentine finished the game with 15 minutes left, running onto Pedro’s sharp through-pass before chipping the onrushing Foster from a tight angle.
With speculation linking him with a summer departure, this could have been Hazard’s final Premier League game for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
If that is the case then it was a fine way to bow out, though it also gave Chelsea a sharp reminder of what they will be missing if the Belgian leaves.
Gary Cahill was brought on in the final stages for his first competitive appearance since November before his expected departure from the club at the end of the season.
Watford pay price for slow start to second half
Watford’s hopes of finishing seventh were already over going into this game after Wolves’ win against Fulham on Saturday, meaning they have to beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final if they want to qualify for the Europa League.
Watford head coach Javi Gracia named a strong side, including a return for captain and top scorer Troy Deeney after completing a three-match ban.
The Hornets boss says his players cannot afford to lose focus in their remaining league games with cup final starting places up for grabs. That was demonstrated by a lively start, with Deulofeu fizzing a 20-yard-effort just wide of the post before Deeney’s powerful header was superbly clawed onto the post by Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Jose Holebas then fired over the bar from just inside the area as Watford continued to dominate the opening stages, sparking murmurs of frustration from the home crowd.
But after working so hard in the opening 45 minutes, Gracia must have been frustrated at their slow start to the second period, conceding twice from set pieces in quick succession.
Deulofeu, the hero of Watford’s FA Cup semi-final win over Wolves last month, continued to be a threat and was unlucky to see his low drive go just wide of the post with Kepa unmoved. Holebas then clipped the bar after stealing the ball from Mateo Kovacic just outside the area.
Watford’s day was perhaps summed up when a late header from Isaac Success was ruled out after the ball inadvertently hit team-mate Andre Gray, who was in an offside position.
Man of the match – Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
Chelsea maintain winning run against Watford – the stats
- Chelsea are unbeaten in 12 home matches against Watford in all competitions (W8 D4 L0) since a 5-1 defeat on the final day of the 1985-86 season.
- Watford have lost each of their past 11 Premier League clashes against ‘big six’ opposition, since beating Tottenham in September. The Hornets have conceded 27 goals in those 11 matches, scoring just six in return.
- Watford haven’t kept a clean sheet in any of their past 40 Premier League games against ‘big six’ opponents, last recording a shutout in February 2016 against Chelsea at Vicarage Road.
- Chelsea have named a starting XI with no English players for the 20th time in the Premier League this season – only Arsenal in 2006-07 (33) and 2007-08 (27) have done so more in a single campaign.
- Chelsea winger Pedro has had a hand in six goals in his past five starts at Stamford Bridge in all competitions (four goals, two assists).
- Eden Hazard has been directly involved in 31 Premier League goals for Chelsea this season (16 goals, 15 assists); only Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (32 – 2000-01), Frank Lampard (36 – 2009-10) and Didier Drogba (39 – 2009-10) have had a hand in more in a single campaign for Chelsea.
- Hazard’s 15 league assists is more than any other player in the big five European leagues in 2018-19.
Chelsea welcome Eintracht Frankfurt to Stamford Bridge on Thursday for the second leg of their Europa League semi-final (20:00 BST). The Blues then travel to Leicester while Watford host West Ham on the final day of the Premier League season next Sunday (both 15:00 BST).