22 December 2014 2000 hours UTC
The Britannia Stadium, Stoke
Premier League leaders Chelsea travel north to the Britannia Stadium to take on Stoke City on Monday night, looking to maintain their slender 3 point lead at the top of the table – a lead that could, for the first time this season, be wiped out by Manchester City on Saturday before Chelsea face the Potters two days later.
Stoke City are sat at a comfortable 12th in the league table, and whilst they are unlikely to have designs on a European campaign next season, a top-half finish will certainly be a target. Having overcome their indifferent form by beating Arsenal earlier this month, the Potters will look to affect the title race yet again by claiming a major scalp in the form of title favourites Chelsea to add to their wins against Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal.
Chelsea, meanwhile, appear to have recovered from their defeat to Newcastle with three wins on the trot in as many different competitions. The Blues have been pegged back in the Premier League by the likes of Manchester City and even Manchester United however, and with difficult games against the likes of West Ham, Southampton and Spurs on the horizon, manager Jose Mourinho will know the importance of a win at the Britannia. Although the Portuguese schemer has promised not to prioritize any one competition over the other, he will know that failure to win the league given the start his side have had could make his position at the helm rather tenuous.
Team News and Tactics
Stoke City will be boosted by the expected return of former Barcelona man Bojan Krkic who has been in fine form of late for the Potters. Fellow La Masia graduate Marc Muniesa might be available for the home side too, as perhaps will Premier League veteran Stephen Ireland. Steve Sidwell and Peter Odemwingie will miss out however, as will Victor Moses who is injured but unavailable for selection against his parent club regardless.
Although Mark Hughes has moved away to some extent from what some would deem the agricultural (yet highly effective) style the Potters adopted under Tony Pulis, the former Chelsea forward’s 4-2-3-1 set-up on paper is likely to translate to more of a 4-4-2 with his Stoke side sitting deep in two banks of four, pressing the visitors and denying Chelsea’s creative players time and space on the ball, and hitting the Blues on the counter. That has, in essence, been the plan of most teams when playing against the likes of Fabregas, Hazard, Oscar and Costa this season, and recently, it has paid dividends for Sunderland and neighbours Newcastle. The Potters are an extremely physical side and will look to trouble Chelsea from set-pieces, with Peter Crouch acting as target man. The Englishman is extremely effective at knocking down balls for runners, and the Blues need to react quickly to second balls if they are to avoid suffering at the hands of the lanky striker.
Whilst Stoke might adopt their famous long ball approach at some point in the game, they will be looking to hurt Chelsea on the counter attack with the pace of Diouf and Walters on the break. Bojan Krkic, meanwhile, has been excelling in his creative role behind the striker, and could ask some questions of the Blues defence by looking to take them on in one on one situations, as well as play balls in behind the defence to the likes of Walters and Diouf coming in from wider positions, and of course, to Peter Crouch up front. Stoke have every reason to be confident of getting something out of this game, and with Begovic standing between the sticks, Chelsea will have to be at the top of their game to win all three points.
Possible line-up: Begovic; Bardsley, Shawcross, Wilson, Pieters; Cameron, N’zonzi; Diouf, Bojan, Walters; Crouch.
Chelsea will be delighted to welcome back Cesc Fabregas after the Spaniard missed the game against Hull City due to suspension. Jose Mourinho confirmed that Kurt Zouma would be available for selection despite suffering a nasty-looking blow after an aerial collision with Petr Cech. Thibaut Courtois could recover from a slight groin strain in time to face the Potters, but Didier Drogba is expected to miss the game due to an ankle injury picked up in the Capital One Cup quarter-final win against Derby County.
The Blues are expected to set up in their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with Fabregas returning to partner Nemanja Matic in the midfield pivot. The Spaniard’s creativity and vision will be vital in breaking down the Stoke defence and his presence in the centre of the park should add the fluidity to Chelsea’s forward play that was lacking against Hull City a week ago at the Bridge. Diego Costa, meanwhile, was back amongst the goals for Chelsea last weekend and will relish the physical battle that he will inevitably get at Stoke against the likes of Ryan Shawcross. As has been the case earlier this season, his movement will be extremely important in stretching the opposition defence and allowing space for the likes of Hazard, Oscar and Willian to operate.
If fit, Thibaut Courtois could play a massive role in the game in terms of dealing with Stoke City’s crosses and long balls. The Belgian shot-stopper is arguably the best in the league, if not the world, at coming out to collect crosses and more importantly, hanging on to them and not allowing strikers to pick up loose balls. His height is certainly a factor, but Courtois’ anticipation is just as important, as the man himself explained in a recent interview. Particularly if the Blues find themselves hanging on to a lead late in the game, the presence of the 22-year old could be absolutely vital in securing all three points.
Possible line-up: Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Matic, Fabregas; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Diego Costa.
- Stoke City haven’t won consecutive games this season in the Premier League. Their latest victory against Arsenal was followed by a draw at Selhurst Park.
- Eden Hazard, the man on the verge of signing a new 5-year deal at Chelsea, has more passes in the final third (450) than any other Premier League player.
- Chelsea have lost just once to Stoke City in the Premier League – the defeat coming last season thanks to an Assaidi screamer.
Stoke’s 6ft 5in. hit man has scored in each of his last two fixtures, and could play a massive role against Chelsea on Monday. Chelsea have been guilty of losing second balls in the box this season, and that could prove extremely costly against Peter Crouch, who has practically made his career knocking down the ball for his team-mates coming in from deeper positions. Other than the obvious aerial threat, the Englishman isn’t bad with his feet either, and like many top strikers in the league, has the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Stoke City 1 – 2 Chelsea
It will be a very difficult game for Chelsea, but the Blues should have enough firepower to break down the Potters defence. An early goal could open things up for the Stamford Bridge outfit, and could perhaps provide opportunities to kill the game.