STOKE CITY

v

CHELSEA

Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent, England
JanuaryAi??12, 2013, 1500 GMT

***

Ai??

Buoyed by the news that Terry featured successfully in a squad game on Thursday, Chelsea make the long trudge to the Britannia Stadium. By any account, the Blues find themselves in a spot of bother. After what looked like a general warming towards the reign of Benitez, the pendulum has swung back again fiercely with some predictable results. Rafa Benitez was roundly heckled by Chelsea’s supporters, for having left Frank Lampard and Demba Ba out of the game longer than they should’ve been. What came as a surprise to many, though,Ai??was the booing that greeted Torres. Until now, Chelsea’s fans were seen as willing to accommodate the struggling Spaniard and overlook his obvious failings. But with Ba’s arrival, Frank Lampard’s impending departure and Benitez’s unpopularity on the rise, Chelsea’s supporters finally feel unburdened by any previous obligations to Torres.

Making matters infinitely worse was Torres himself, who put in an insipid performance even by his own shoddy standards – just about 19 touches of the ball, in all his 80 minutes of play against Swansea. The usually reliable Ivanovic was shaky at the back, and both of his howlers were duly punished. In the clash against Stoke, Chelsea’s ranks of diminutive midfielders will be tested to breaking point, against the likes of Huth, Shawcross and the rest of Tony Pulis’ gory brigade. Stoke have lost only once in their past 8 games, understandably to champions Manchester City in an uncharacteristic 3-0 rout, but have generally played according to the script all the other times – including tearing Liverpool apart 3-1.

Team News and Tactical Brief

Stoke City

Stoke are a no-nonsense team, that prizes results over anything else. Their 4-5-1 formation is compact, and imperious on most days. The Red and White jerseys are likely to have little patience while Chelsea indulge in their Barcelona-aping tiki-taka game of pinball. Pulis will have instructed his men to keep a watchful eye out for any slack passing. Stoke are not the fastest on the counter, but Kenwyne Jones will relish holding up the ball against a defense that does not feature John Terry. Pulis has made a career out of keeping things simple at Stoke, and the Britannia brigade will likely stick to his plan, only getting adventurous in the air, a dimension in which Chelsea’s new-look side are sorely lacking.

Stoke have gone through this season without conceding a single goal from outside penalty shooting range. Which means they’re most susceptible at the point where Ba is most effective. They also hold the record of scoring the highest percentage of their goals from set-pieces, at a whopping 57%. Stoke are missing Rory Delap whose long throws might have caused some Chelsea some nervy moments. In his absence, Stoke’s best bet will be to rack up as many corners as possible. Kightly and Walters will be instructed to get the ball as high up the pitch as they can, and hope for a lucky deflection outAi??from one of Chelsea’s wide players. Kighlty will probably have the easier time doing that against Azplicueta, while Walters matches witsAi??with Ashley Cole.

Chelsea

Chelsea can afford to call upon John Terry, but would prefer not to rush the captain’s return. Lampard, whose obsolesence to the team is greatly exaggerated, will likely start unless Rafa Benitez is a glutton for punishment. With Mikel and Moses away on international duty, Luiz’s build will come in handy alongside Lampard. Demba Ba, whose goal poaching instincts are -by the looks of it – second to none, might be exactly the kind of striker Chelsea need. Torres is a textbook striker, who relies on surging runs and bold finishing to get the job done; but with his dreaded pace now having deserted him, the Spaniard is an embarrassing waste of space on the field. With players like Mata and Hazard to feed him, and with his poaching instincts turned on, all Ba will need to do to make even the slightest of impacts against Stoke, is show up.

Chelsea’s defenders, Ivanovic and Cahill in particular, will need to resist the temptation to join their colleagues upfront, no matter how overrun they look. With Chelsea’s advanced players unlikely to put in a defensive shift, any reponse from Stoke will involve them taking the aerial route bypassing Chelsea’s midfield. There is the likelihood Ivanovic might commit himself far too up the field, to make amends for his poor showing against Swansea – and that could be suicidal with Jones more than able to hold off half the Chelsea team until reinforcements arrive. The absence of Cech’s reliable presence between the posts, mean the pressure will well and truly be on the two central defenders.

Key Match Facts

  • John Terry makes his return to the Chelsea side, after an absence of 16 weeks.
  • Stoke, at home, have not beaten Chelsea since 1975. But since the Abramovich era begain, this will be the first time Stoke hold the clear physical advantage.
  • Demba Ba scored a hat-trick in his last appearance against Stoke. Stoke passed up the opportunity to sign him in 2011, when he failed a medical.
  • Frank Lampard needs just one more goal to put him ahead of Kerry Dixon, on Chelsea’s all-time highest scoring list.

Player to Watch Out For

Demba Ba (Chelsea)

Presumably, not as bitter as he was the last time he ran into Stoke, Demba Ba will still be eager to stick it to his former suitors. Having seen his move to Stoke fall apart over a failed medical, Ba also has another point to prove. In front of a travelling support that’sAi??eager for a new hero, and as one of the few bright spots in both of Chelsea’s last 2 games, Ba cannot be seen as taking a step back. In a club still looking to crown Drogba’s successor, Ba must prove he has more in common with the Ivorian than just a syllable. Eager to rub it in Stoke’s faces, eager to prove his worth at his new club – any wonder then, why he’s our player to watch out for?

TheHardTackle’s Prediction

Stoke City 1 – 2 Chelsea FC

Chelsea mightAi??eke out a victory, by the slightest margins if Ba has a happy day at the office. Stung by the crowd’s reaction to Bruce Buck and Fernando Torres, Rafa Benitez will feature Frank Lampard for this game in a bid to keep alive Chelsea’s long shot attempt at the title.

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