LONDON (AP) — However much Jose Mourinho tries to downplay Chelsea's title credentials, his players make such an idea look increasingly credible.
A first hat trick in England for Eden Hazard propelled Chelsea to the top of the standings on Saturday for the first time all season outright — with no caveats. A 3-0 victory over Newcastle ensured that, having started the day in third, the Blues seized on their rivals stumbling to go a point clear. Arsenal was deposed from the summit after being humiliated 5-1 at Liverpool, and Manchester City slipped after being held 0-0 at Norwich.
Despite Chelsea making it eight wins in 10 league games, Mourinho still sees players as novices, likening them to learner drivers trying to compete with the usually formidable City. "Manchester City is a Jaguar — you cannot put an 'L plate' behind a Jaguar," Mourinho told the BBC.
"And this season we have only one objective, which is to finish top four." It's tempting to credit Chelsea with a lot more than that, especially after opening the week with a win at City, even if the form of Mourinho's strikers remains so inconsistent.
Fortunately for Mourinho there are goals in the rest of the team, and Hazard raised his haul to 12 in the league this season, one more than strikers Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba combined.
Hazard scored twice in seven minutes during an eye-catching attacking spell in the first half, then the winger claimed his 14th of the season from the penalty spot after the break. "He's playing really well, he's had a big evolution, he has consistency, ambition and it's fantastic," Mourinho said.
Underpinned by defensive solidity that has seen the team concede just twice in nine league games, Chelsea was rarely troubled as Newcastle was condemned to a fifth loss in seven. "Their work-rate was phenomenal for a team with the technical ability they had," Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said, blaming injuries for his team's struggles.
Newcastle's collapse at Stamford Bridge came at the end of yet another turbulent week for the eighth-placed team. First came a northeast derby loss to Sunderland. Then the ineffective, and widely mocked, director of football Joe Kinnear quit suddenly after failing to make a single permanent signing in his two transfer windows at the club. And finally, the reserve team manager was forced out over an incident with one of his players.
What had been an assured Newcastle start in west London, with Hatem Ben Arfa looking lively, soon turned sour on a busy afternoon for goalkeeper Tim Krul, who blocked early efforts from Frank Lampard and deftly kicked away Hazard's cross that was bound for Samuel Eto'o.
The move that led to the opener in the 27th minute was started by Hazard picking out Branislav Ivanovic on the right flank. The defender then returned the ball for the advancing Hazard to sweep into the net with a first-time shot from close range.
Newcastle had a chance to equalize when Moussa Sissoko drew goalkeeper Petr Cech off his line, but he could only shoot wide. "My defensive line didn't control the attack so it was a big save," Mourinho said.
And Chelsea was on target again in the 34th from a counterattack as rapid as it was slick. Fed by Willian, Hazard cut in from the left, and played a one-two with Eto'o, who flicked the ball back for the Belgium winger to net again.
Krul's blushes were spared at the start of the second half when David Luiz's long ball bounced over the goalkeeper, but Oscar couldn't reach it to direct over the line. And when it came to repelling Lampard's free kick, Krul produced a fine save, tipping the ball over. Newcastle's problems came from the resulting corner with the penalty that Hazard would score in the 63rd conceded in an off-the-ball incident when Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa brought down Eto'o.
"I don't know why he grabbed him in that manner, and he's scratching his head as to why he got himself into that position," Pardew said.