After difficult first season, Pedro becomes instrumental for champions-elect Chelsea

As Everton and Chelsea cancelled each other out for an hour on Sunday, it was always likely to take something special to break the deadlock at Goodison Park. That is exactly how events played out: a stunning strike from Pedro Rodriguez gave the visitors the lead in the 66th minute, with Antonio Conte’s side then going on to score twice more as they took a giant step towards the Premier League title.

It was Pedro’s 11th goal of the season in all competitions and probably his most important yet. Chelsea had chances to take the lead in the first half, with Eden Hazard hitting the side-netting after rounding Maarten Stekelenburg and Diego Costa firing over the bar from close-range, but Everton striker Romelu Lukaku was also causing problems with his physicality and athleticism. The hosts’ game plan centred on getting the ball forward quickly to the Belgium international, whose sheer presence often forced David Luiz and Gary Cahill into some nervous moments both in and out of possession.

On the other side of the ball, Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye did a man-marking job on Hazard, although the former Aston Villa man was not quite as effective or diligent in his duties as Manchester United’s Ander Herrera was at Old Trafford last month. Nevertheless, Chelsea’s star man was prevented from running the show as he often does, and a goalless stalemate looked like a distinct possibility before Pedro’s intervention.

Receiving the ball 25 yards out with his back to goal, the Spaniard worked a yard of space for himself before hitting a ferocious left-footed shot into the top corner of the net. It was a fantastic effort from the Chelsea No.11, who ran towards the visiting fans to celebrate a pivotal goal in the race for the title.

On the corresponding weekend this time last year, Pedro was hauled off at half-time against Tottenham Hotspur and replaced by Hazard, who led Chelsea’s comeback from two goals down to draw 2-2 with their London rivals and deny Mauricio Pochettino’s men the Premier League title. It was, in many ways, symbolic of the disappointing season he had endured: the ex-Barcelona man, signed from the La Liga giants for £21m in the summer of 2015, scored seven goals and provided two assists in the top flight, but all in all it was an underwhelming debut campaign in the English game.

In fairness to Pedro, Chelsea’s implosion under Jose Mourinho in 2015/16 meant he joined the club at a difficult time; it was, moreover, his first taste of playing club football away from the Camp Nou. He has given a far better demonstration of his abilities this time around, making 31 appearances in the Premier League, scoring eight goals and assisting another eight. His combination of speed, direct running and technical ability have helped Chelsea to thrive in transition phases, with Pedro and Hazard both especially dangerous in the moments after possession has changed hands, while his work rate off the ball has been equally important to Conte’s charges.

Chelsea passed their biggest remaining test in emphatic fashion against Everton, which means they remain four points clear of Tottenham Hotspur at the summit of the standings. It is very likely that Pedro will win a sixth career league winner’s medal in the coming weeks, and it is extremely difficult to argue that both he and his team do not deserve it.

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