Records were set and equalled by Chelsea as they only just managed to beat a resilient Stoke City side in a 6-goal thriller.
It was by no means the best Chelsea performance of the season and one that Mauricio Pochettino would have been watching intently. Mark Hughes’ side showed a lot of heart and kept fighting back, coming back twice to level the scoreline, before eventually succumbing to the Blues.
Gary Cahill opened the scoring with a stunning header in the 34th minute and the scored stayed 1-0 going into the break. It seemed as if it would be business as usual for Chelsea in the second half with resolute defending, long periods of possession and maybe a goal or two more.
But the Potters came out swinging in the second half, and Bruno Martins Indi leveled the scoreline after he slotted it past Thibaut Courtois from close range a minute into the second half, thanks to a loss of concentration and shabby defending from the Blues.
Willian later regained Chelsea’s lead with a curling effort from inside the box after 56 minutes. Victor Moses did brilliantly to leave Erik Pieters for dead and slotted it to Hazard inside the penalty box, who set up the Brazilian with an exquisite first touch.
Peter Crouch got Stoke back in the game 10 minutes later. It was the result of Chelsea being unable to close down and clear the ball effectively. Conte would have been furious seeing the kind of defending on display, which allowed an ever grateful Crouch tap it in past Courtois.
Stoke barely had any time to settle, as a minute later Cesc Fabregas sent Willian through to smash it into the back of the net for Chelsea’s third of the night. That was Cesc Fabregas’ 100th assist in the Premier League and he is the quickest to reach that milestone in the history of the English game.
Stoke, despite their efforts, did not have an answer this time. Diego Costa put the game to rest in the 85th minute with a stunning effort from inside the box, after holding off Bruno Martins Indi, getting around him and smashing a left-footed shot in from a tight angle.
The Brazilian didn’t exactly start off the current season in the same manner as he did the previous campaign, but after a slow start to the season where he also lost out his starting position to Pedro, it seems as if he is slowly finding his stride.
However, he has already equalled last season’s tally of 5 Premier League goals in less than half the number of appearances this campaign and will only be able to add to that tally with a little over half the season still left to play.
Willian has also had to deal with immense personal tragedy and is still reeling from the loss of his mother, which has clearly had an effect on his game. But with the immense support of Conte, his teammates and the fans, he looks set to give Pedro competition for the starting spot once again.
The Spaniard had yet another stellar outing in the middle of the park alongside N’golo Kante against the Potters. He got his 99th and 100th Premier League assists and has taken the shortest amount of time to reach that amazing milestone.
The first was a superb cross from a corner kick to find Gary Cahill and the second a perfectly timed through ball for an onrushing Willian for what was to be Chelsea’s winner on the night. The two he picked up were his 4th and 5th of the current campaign in only 10 appearances.
Even his staunchest critics will now admit that there is no substitute for his creativity and passing ability in this Chelsea squad. What he lacks for in defensive ability, he more than makes up for with his attacking prowess.
It is clear that he won’t be allowed to leave Chelsea in January, and this 73 minute masterclass is sure to give Antonio Conte a welcome selection headache for next week and future ties.
Though Chelsea managed to deal with Costa’s absence quite nicely against Bournemouth, notching up a 3-0 victory against the Cherries whilst the Spaniard was serving his suspension, he reminded everyone of his importance to this Chelsea squad with a stunning goal.
The 28-year-old smashed in his side’s fourth goal of the night with an effort that showed all that he was about – sheer will, power and precision. It was his 14th goal of the season, cementing his place as the EPL’s top scorer for another week.
He was a constant menace throughout the evening for Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi and never gave them a moment’s peace. He constantly harassed them with his presence and kept leading them away with his deceptive movements. It was a deserved goal for a superb performance and Conte and the Chelsea fans would be relieved to see their top striker hasn’t lost his momentum as they prepare for next week’s London derby.
Conte’s Selection Headache
Going into next week’s tie against Tottenham, Conte will have two major selection headaches, i.e, whether to go with Pedro or Willian in attack with Hazard and Costa, and Matic or Fabregas in the middle of the park alongside N’golo Kante.
Pedro got on the score sheet last week and missed out this tie due to suspension. However, Willian is slowly getting back to his best, whilst recovering from a difficult time in his life and his 2 goals against Stoke show that he is on the right track.
Matic missed out on a starting spot in this game due to the fear of suspension. The Serbian, who is currently on 4 yellow cards, was left out in favour of Cesc Fabregas, who has been in stellar form in recent weeks after featuring more prominently in Conte’s squad.
With all of them fit and available for next week’s tie, it will be interesting to see how Conte deploys his squad against Spurs. It’s importance cannot be understated, as the consecutive match winning record, Chelsea’s win streak, their lead on top of the table and last but not the least, bragging rights between the London clubs will all be on the line at White Hart Lane.
Mark Of Champions?
It would suffice to say that this wasn’t Chelsea’s best performance this season. They conceded the same number goals in this match as they did in 12 games prior to this. Stoke aren’t the best attacking side in the league, but kept asking questions of Chelsea, many of which weren’t answered.
However, despite not being at their best for a large part of the game, Chelsea did manage a flattering scoreline. They managed to hold off Stoke City and eventually triumphed thanks to their patience, character and confidence, all marks of a champion team.
After starting off this winning streak with emphatic victories against the likes of Manchester United and Everton, Chelsea have had to dig deeper than ever before only to churn out narrow victories as their opposition are now adapting to their 3-4-3 system and new style of play.
The Blues face Tottenham next, who willing be looking to exact revenge for ending their unbeaten streak in the league in November. They have been on a decent run of form off late, winning their last 4 fixtures, scoring 13 goals in the process.
Needless to say, they will pose a far greater challenge to Antonio Conte’s side and Mauricio Pochettino will be relishing the prospect of facing a Chelsea side who haven’t been at their best in recent weeks.