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Blues march on after Upton Park battle


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Chelsea took a giant three points thanks to a gritty performance and Eden Hazard's first-half header.

The diminutive Belgian headed home from six yards after a lightning Chelsea counter-attack culminated with the former Lille man converting from Ramires' deft right wing cross.

After a cagey opening five minutes full of plenty of endeavour but little easy-on-the-eye football, the game exploded into life when, moments after Hammers defender Winston Reid hobbled off, Diego Costa failed to punish the host's reorganised back four as he failed to convert from Oscar's incisive pass.

That opportunity saw the game spark into a whirlwind contest of flowing counter-attacking football, with each side taking turns to trade blows. But after Thibaut Courtois - reinstated into the starting eleven after sitting out Sunday's Capital One Cup final victory over Tottenham - had done well to save from Cheikhou Kouyate's close-range shot, it was the visitors who landed the first punch.

An initial counter-attack looked to have broken down when Cesc Fabregas dawdled in possession, but the Spaniard showed the guile to turn and feed Ramires, who in turn was able to float the ball onto the forehead of Hazard, and the midfield magician duly notched his fourteenth goal of a productive season.

Replays indicated Hazard was marginally offside, but with myriad decisions going against Chelsea this season, with the Premier League title chase in full flow it would appear that the Blues' luck may finally be turning.

Costa then wasted a chance he would surely have converted earlier in the season; bearing down on goal he allowed Carl Jenkinson the time to make a wonderful recovery challenge. At the opposite end, the Hammers, fuelled by what they deemed to be the injustice of the opening goal, went close to restoring parity when Diafra Sakho met Jenkinson's cross but could only find the gloves of Courtois.

West Ham emerged reinvigorated after the interval and dominated the first ten minutes of the second period in terms of possession and territory, but it was José Mourinho's side who had the chance to effectively end the contest when Ramires stole forward and hit the base of the post from another flowing counter.

Hazard was once more the instigator, and Ramires was terribly unlucky not to score - showing great composure under pressure, he checked inside one defender before seeing the ball cannon off the inside of the post and somehow role into the grateful palms of Adrian.

The West Ham goal was leading a charmed life, and Adrian showed near-elasticity to repel another effort from Ramires just moments later; sticking out a long leg to deflect the ball away from danger.

Courtois, who has had to perform brilliantly in recent weeks considering the form of the Blues' "back-up" stopper Petr Cech, justified his selection with a terrific save from Sakho, who was causing a degree of panic in the Chelsea penalty area. The Belgian keeper twice smothered attempts from the Senegalese forward, who was cursing his fortune in front of goal.

Sakho, the victim of a vicious elbow by Crystal Palace's Mile Jedinak on Saturday, showed no ill-effects of that blow with this performance and was again unfortunate not to capitalise on an error by Courtois. The Belgian failed to grasp an initial shot, but before Sahko could fire home the rebound, a wonder-block by Gary Cahill saw the ball somehow smuggled behind for a corner kick.

The Blues were under relentless pressure, with Sam Allardyce's side's performance defying the critics who have claimed the Hammers' season has stagnated since their FA Cup exit at the hands of West Bromwich Albion last month, and the home side were adamant they should have had a penalty when Kouyate ran into the back of John Terry, though Andre Marriner rightly dismissed those claims.

There were muted appeals for a Cahill handball when substitute Nene's strike hit the forearm of the England vice-captain, but again Marriner - who minutes later would also correctly turned down similar Chelsea appeals at the other end - was on hand to make the call.

Hazard and Willian combined to ruin what would have been a classic sucker punch moment following a final fifteen minutes which certainly belonged to Allardyce's men after a spirited showing - but ultimately, in shades of Ewood Park in 2005, this signifies a massive step for Chelsea in their tilt for title glory.

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