On paper it looked as if there would be only one outcome at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon. A Chelsea side with 14 wins from their last 15 games hosted Hull City languishing in the relegation zone with nine consecutive away defeats and without a clean sheet in 19. A home rout was surely the only sensible bet as the hosts sought a nine point lead at the top of England's top flight.
After a week of turmoil surrounding speculation on the future of top goalscorer Diego Costa, it turned out that Antonio Conte was to be grateful for the return of the Spaniard. After being linked with a move to China, Costa scored deep into first-half injury time before Gary Cahill sealed the points against a spirited visiting unit.
Mason picks up nasty head injury in tight opening
All eyes were on the team sheets before kick-off as Chelsea fans were keen to see if their star striker was set to start and Marco Silva picked his Hull team from a squad that has been deprived of injuries all season but included three new signings. Conte went with a predictable 3-4-3 with all the familiar faces, including Costa as the focal point in the attack. Meanwhile, Silva set up with a 5-4-1 including a tight midfield that saw Sam Clucas take a more advanced role and Evandro and Omar Elabdellaoui make full debuts on the right side of the pitch.
Within 20 seconds it looked as if it could be a long match for the visitors as Costa latched onto a loose headed clearance to control the ball and volley just wide from the edge of the box. Yet Hull responded with two organised banks of defenders and midfielders and caused a half chance of their own as Tom Huddlestone dragged a speculative effort wide.
Chelsea were passing fluidly but struggling to break the tight Hull side down and their momentum was halted as Ryan Mason and Cahill clashed heads with the Tigers midfielder coming off worse. After eight minutes of treatment, Mason was worryingly stretchered off with an oxygen mask on.
Costa gives Chelsea the lead
Hull responded better initially as Harry Maguire burst forward from defence and forced a corner before heading the resulting set-piece into the arms of Thibaut Courtois. That slight warning encouraged Chelsea to push on as they forced a flurry of corners themselves. One of which came out to Marcos Alonso who fired a shot that looped up off Michael Dawson and had to be tipped over by Eldin Jakupovic.
Maguire produced the best opportunity of the game as he drove a sharp effort that was pushed away by Courtois, though the hosts continued to press forward particularly through Alonso and Victor Moses on the flanks. Eventually their endeavours were rewarded as the wingers combined before Moses cut the ball back to Costa and he duly added the finish to give Chelsea a crucial lead on half-time.
Hull just fall short in their response
Hull were not prepared to throw in the towel and created opportunities just minutes into the second half. Clucas had a shot deflected over before substitute David Meyler stung the palms of Courtois. Lone striker Abel Hernandez may have felt unlucky not to have won a penalty when he was seemingly clipped by Alonso but Hull protests were waved away.
Costa was still proving a threat at the other end as Michael Dawson was forced into a sharp block before the Premier League top goalscorer forced Jakupovic into a routine stop. Yet a hamstring injury to Curtis Davies worked in Hull's favour to an extent as they reverted to a 4-4-1-1 formation with Evandro supporting Hernandez. Hull pushed forward with wave after wave of attack but just could not produce the required quality in the final third. The best chance fell to Dawson who peeled away at the back post but was kept out by Courtois.
Cahill seals the points
Eventually Chelsea secured the three points as the introduction of Cesc Fabregas cut through a tiring Hull defence. The midfielder delivered a pinpoint free-kick as Cahill found acres of room away from Clucas to nod home a Chelsea winner.
Fabregas was then at the centre of the action again as he slotted through Costa only for his international teammate to be thwarted by Jakupovic. Oumar Niasse did force a late save by Courtois but the Cahill header had all but sapped the life out of the contest.
The hard-fought victory puts Chelsea nine points clear at the top of the league, whilst Hull are still firmly positioned in the relegation zone, though this performance will give them hope that they have the quality to survive.