Chelsea keep their lead at the summit of the table for another week, having emerged victorious against Stoke City, after an intense and chaotic 95 minutes at the bet365 Stadium
Chelsea needed an 86th minute winner from stand-in captain Gary Cahill to ensure that they left Straffordshire with all three points and keep their lead at the top of the table intact. It was a hard fought victory, marred with bookings and one that nearly reached its tipping point.
Willian opened the scoring with a smart free kick but the hosts came back to equalize with a Johnathan Walters penalty, conceded by Gary Cahill late in the first half. After a lot of back and forth in the second half, the Blues eventually emerged victorious, much to the joy and relief of the travelling support.
We revisit this tie to take a look at some of the major talking points and things we learnt from this absorbing Premier League match at the Bet365 Stadium.
Perhaps Antonio Conte’s best decision for this game was to leave Eden Hazard out of the squad. He is reported to have said after the game: “In the last training he felt a bit of a problem in his calf, for this reason I decided not to risk him. That is why he didn’t play today.”
The Belgian was subject to what can only be described as a mauling during their FA Cup Quarterfinal match against Manchester United, as he found himself on the receiving end of 6 of the 14 fouls the Red Devils conceded that entire match.
Needless to say, he would’ve certainly picked up a knock or two over the course of that fixture and training over the course of the following few days would have aggravated it. Hazard is also expected to be left out Belgium’s national team squad in the coming international break because of the injury.
In hindsight, it was clearly the right choice. Stoke’s physical style of play would have likely led to Hazard, who has been arguably their best player this season, being subbed or even stretchered off the pitch if he was made to start the game with an injury.
The 2 weeks of rest is certainly well deserved and will do wonders for his fitness, and they will need the 26-year-old at his optimum levels as they go into the most crucial games of the season after the International break.
Needless to say, this tie will not be used an example to show the fair play and good nature of the Premier League. Chelsea had 64% possession over the game, so the hosts had to resort to some sort of extreme measures to try and dispossess the Blues.
Both teams combined made a total of 27 fouls over the course of the game, 2 of which led to Phil Bardsley getting sent off in the dying moments of the game.
Besides Bardsley, four other Stoke players and two Chelsea players found their way into referee Anthony Taylor’s books. In what was a rare sighting this season, Diego Costa was back to his feisty old self and his battle with Bruno Martins Indi and Phil Bardsley were one of the game’s highlights.
Costa was booked for dissent after getting in Anthony Taylor’s face. It was clear that the Stoke players( and their fans), were trying to push the Spaniard over the edge but to his credit, he kept his head and managed to avoid another booking.
One reckons that the 28-year-old was targeted only due to the absence of Eden Hazard, who is far less temperamental. Had he been on the pitch, there is no telling what the hosts would have resorted to in order to stop him.
The atmosphere created by the even reliable Stoke City fans at the Bet365, described later by Antonio Conte to be ‘Molto Caldo‘( Italian for ‘very hot’), only added to the tension and the frustration between the two sides in a game that was ended thankfully, before things could boil over any further.
One man who certainly benefitted from Hazard’s absence was Willian. It was a triumphant return for the Brazilian(and the afro) to the starting XI. He last started a Premier League match for the Blues in their 1-1 draw at Anfield against Liverpool, which was back in January.
Hardly anyone would have expected Willian to try and curl it into the bottom corner from such an angle. But that’s exactly what he did, taking Lee Grant and the entire Potters’ defence and by surprise, who were busy marking the Chelsea players preparing to run into the box.
On the rare occasion that both he and Pedro started a game, the Brazilian scored his 6th Premier League goal this term and his 8th overall. He has found himself behind Eden Hazard and Pedro in the pecking order this season at the Bridge having started only 18 of his 29 appearances this season.
Not encouraging for someone who was Chelsea’s best player last season, but this performance has shown that he can step up to the big occasion and certainly be relied upon and this will certainly provide Antonio Conte with a welcome selection headache.
The Englishman has been stepping in for John Terry for most of the campaign, and continued to do so brilliantly once again. Cahill conceded a penalty in the 36th minute, which led to Walters’ smashing home Stoke’s equalizer past a helpless Courtois.
However, it could be argued that Johnathan Walters went down far too easily and made the most of Gary Cahill leaning into him. However, the Potters’ wouldn’t be able to finish their comeback and the 31-year-old England International would go on to redeem himself in the 85th minute.
An inswinging corner kick sent in by Cesc Fabregas was directed at goal by David Luiz, a poor clearance from Erik Pieters put the ball in the path of an onrushing Cahill, who smashed the winner past Lee Grant to send the travelling Chelsea support(and Antonio Conte) into a frenzy.
7 More To Go
Cahill’s winner ensured that Chelsea kept their lead at the top of the table intact until the 1st of April. As things stand, the Blues have 69 points and are 10 points clear of second placed Tottenham Hotspur, who beat Southampton last night.
There are 10 games to go for the Blues, including a tie against Watford at Stamford Bridge, that was postponed. Out of these 10 games, Chelsea need to win 7 games to seal the title.
It may seem that with their currently lead, they can afford to take it easy going forward, sounds easy, but it’s a big ask at this stage in the season. These fixtures include games against Manchester United, Manchester City and Everton who are all battling for a place in Europe.
Apart from those fixtures, they also face Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Sunderland, who are all fighting for their lives and that perhaps, will make them far more difficult opposition at this stage of the season as most teams battling to maintain their top flight status take their game up a notch.
History suggests that no team with a lead like this at the top of the table at this point in the season has gone on to lose the title. Chelsea have players who have been in this position before and they have the experience to get through, but there is every chance that the Blues might slip up and we may be in for a far more exciting finish than expected.