Chelsea made it two wins from Roberto di Matteo's first two games in charge on Saturday afternoon, beating Stoke City 1-0 to move back to even on points with Arsenal. Although the scoreline shows a narrow win, Chelsea were fairly comfortable throughout, putting enough pressure on the 10-man Potters that a Stoke collapse was inevitable. It came in the 68th minute thanks to the combination of Juan Mata and Didier Drogba, and although the visitors attempted a fightback, their threat existed more in the heads of paranoid Blues fans than on the pitch.
With Stoke looking to absorb Chelsea pressure and counterattack via the combination of Kenwyne Jones and Ricardo Fuller, di Matteo opted to field an odd looking 4-2-3-1 which featured Frank Lampard behind the striker, Raul Meireles and John Obi Mikel in the double pivot*, Salomon Kalou as a starter and Ramires as a right winger. We also saw the return of John Terry to the starting lineup, the captain partnering Gary Cahill in the centre of defence and pushing David Luiz to the bench.
*Can we please stop referring to midfielders in the '2' band of the 4-2-3-1 as holding players? They're essentially fulfilling the same role as the central pairing in a 4-4-2.
The early stages looked very promising for Chelsea, with the Blues earning a host of corners quickly and nearly going ahead when Lampard's delivery picked out Branislav Ivanovic in the six yard box. The right back had a free header, but ended up nodding well over with the goal at his mercy - a miss, but a good sign nevertheless. Cahill then got in on the action, driving forward and unleashing a sweet long-range shot that Asmir Begovic did rather well to parry behind, but it was clear that Chelsea, with the possible exception of Raul Meireles, were up for the game.
Any hope Stoke might have had of snatching a win was dashed just before the half hour mark when Fuller responded to an Ivanovic challenge in an absolutely appalling way, stamping on the Serbian's groin as he lay prone on the ground. Andre Marriner didn't see it, but his assistant did, and before long Fuller had rightly been dispatched for an early bath.
The sending off didn't change Stoke that much - the two bands of four remained, with Jones in front of them, but Chelsea replied by pulling off Meireles for Juan Mata and shifting Lampard into the pivot. Mata's introduction was very sensible, because the way through Stoke is to outwit their band of hulking giants rather than simply try to cross, and Mata's the best man for that particular job.
Chelsea proceeded to spend the rest of the half shifting the point of the attack around, making very good use of Ivanovic as a right back to carve open the Stoke defence. The Blues hit the woodwork twice in that span, once after a John Terry header and the second after a poor clearance opened the door for Ivanovic from ten yards out. It was pretty obvious that a goal was a matter of time - but it was being delayed by Chelsea's bad habit of crossing to nobody rather than focusing on quick build-up play
Stoke patched up their leaky left side in the second half, and were aided by Ivanovic's forced withdrawal at the break, David Luiz replacing the injured Serbian and doing a not-very-effective-at-all job at right back. Chelsea were still pressing hard for a goal, but poor deliveries were ensuring that they weren't getting particularly close. Drogba changed that in the 66th minute, forcing Asmir Begovic into a fine save from a free kick, and then followed that up with a brilliant finish two minutes later to get the Blues on the board.
Mata did well to work some space at the top of the Stoke penalty box, and he drew out a defender before slipping the ball through the gap to find Drogba's run. The Ivorian's first touch was superb, and his second was even better as the centre forward danced past Begovic and slotted into the empty net to make it 1-0 - his 100th Premier League goal.
Just before Drogba opened the scoring, di Matteo had swapped out John Obi Mikel for Daniel Sturridge in an effort to get more firepower on the pitch. That substitution came at a price. Mikel had been completely controlling the midfield, and without him Chelsea looked a little bit lost, allowing Stoke a foothold into the match. They never really threatened Petr Cech's goal, but after more than an hour of completely comfortable football suddenly wobbling against ten men was nobody's idea of a good time.
Chelsea were still the more potent force during their visitors' 'good' spell, and Mata came very close to making it 2-0 when he rattled Begovic's left post with a stunning free kick. They had plenty of chances to double their lead, but sensibly opted to wind the clock down and focus on possession rather than a shiny scoreline. It was a wise decision, and the eventual 1-0 victory was ultimately fairly comfortable.
That's Chelsea back on level terms with Arsenal then, and although we need a few results to fall our way, Tottenham Hotspur's loss to Everton means that we're now back in the mix for third place. It's not been a bad weekend so far.
When you play against Stoke City you know it is going to be difficult to break them down because they defend well and they defend with a lot of players. The sending off really didn't change much because they still had two banks of four and defended very deep, so it was just a case of getting one goal, and if you get an early goal it obviously makes it easier.
Sometimes you have to win like this, it is not always going to be pretty. Sometimes you have to win playing scrappy. From the first minute there was time wasting and it was important the ref was aware of that. But we kept our calm and just focused on getting the goal. We hit the woodwork three times so with a little bit of luck the scoreline could have been higher.'
-Roberto di Matteo. Source: ChelseaFC.com.
[Fuller's] been a great player for us, but what he's done is a ridiculous reaction. He's got a short fuse and we'll deal with it in-house.
It's difficult enough to go to Chelsea with 11 men, but it made a tough job for us even more difficult. I think Ivanovic clipped Ric as he was running into the box but, irrespective, it's a poor reaction.
-Tony Pullis. Source: BBC.