I don't think that was a 4-0 today.
It just didn't go for us. The referee gives a penalty at 1-0 and it was offside, it was a good call, but if that goes for you it's one each and we have the impetus. We didn't deserve to be losing at half-time and until the second goal I felt we were the better team, although Chelsea have some fantastic players.
-Tony Pulis. Source: ChelseaFC.com.
I'm not entirely sure Pulis is wrong. For the first hour of the 4-0 victory against Stoke, Chelsea looked fairly laboured. That's to be expected against the Potters, of course -- they were the holders of the longest home unbeaten streak in English football until the slightly strange affair that lifted the Blues up to third in the table.
Going to the Britannia was going to be hard enough at full strength, but Chelsea were definitely not fully stocked. Oriol Romeu is out with a long-term knee injury and both Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel are off on Africa Cup of Nations duty, Gary Cahill, meanwhile, was excused to be present for the birth of his first child. With John Terry not fit enough to start, the absentees forced David Luiz into the back line while Ramires and Frank Lampard began the day in central midfield.
That wasn't going so well early on. Stoke were able to hold possession and push the Blues back, and with Juan Mata's first touch failing to stick it was very difficult for Chelsea to move the ball forward. That led to long spells of possession for the hosts, and although the defence held up admirably there were still occasional scares. Had Kenwyne Jones found the inside of the post rather than skidding just wide in the eighth minute, we might have had a very different match on our hands.
Fortunately that early salvo was repelled, and Chelsea began to come into the match. Their first real chance fell to Frank Lampard after some excellent work from Eden Hazard and Mata, and if not for a top-class save from Asmir Begovic the Blues would have taken the lead in the 25th minute.
Lampard then turned provider with a deft ball over the top for Demba Ba ten minutes later. The striker showed great strength to hold off Ryan Shawcross, but once again Begovic kept the shot out with a fine stop, leaving Ramires' followup to be deflected wide.
Chelsea had had the better chances in the first half, but it was still a surprise to go into the interval 1-0 up. Some superb play on the left from Lampard led to a throw in in a good position, and eventually the ball was worked across the pitch for Cesar Azpilicueta, who danced into the box and crossed for a cloud of blue shirts at the back post.
Seeing that there were no covering defenders, Jonathan Walters, whose previous involvement in the match amounted to volleying the ball against his own face, raced back into position and attempted to clear the danger. Perhaps he misjudged the cross. Perhaps his striker's instincts took over. Either way, he produced an absolutely stupendous diving header and powered the ball into the back of the net, leaving a monumentally confused Mata in his wake and Chelsea up 1-0.
It could have been two shortly after halftime, with Ba managing to power through a pair of Stoke defenders and then pick out an unmarked Ashley Cole, only for Begovic to pull off yet another excellent kick save to keep the hosts in the game. Stoke, meanwhile, were producing chances of their own -- Petr Cech had to be alert to tip over when Steven N'Zonzi produced a long-ranged effort that had more in common with the wrath of Zeus than a shot. The match was still very much in question.
And Stoke came perilously close to drawing level shortly thereafter. Charlie Adam breezed (i.e. lumbered like the stumpy-legged bovine he is) past David Luiz with jaw-dropping ease before slipping Matthew Etherington through, and Azpilicueta's last-ditch challenge resulted in the winger going to ground and Andre Marriner pointing to the penalty spot.
Had the Potters scored there, the momentum would have been in their favour and three points would have been very much in doubt. Fortunately, the day was saved thanks to the assistant referee, whose frantically waving flag drew Marriner's attention to the fact that Etherington was (quite blatantly) offside when he picked up the pass.
Crisis averted, Chelsea went on to run away with the match. A lovely passage of play earned the Blues a corner, from which Walters struck again, stealing in ahead of Lampard to steer the ball past Begovic with the back of his head, becaming just the fourth player in Premier League history to score two own goals in one match in the process.
The Blues would have a goal of their own shortly thereafter. Mata was set free in the box, and although the pincer movement of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth provided adequate cover, the latter went through the back of Mata's legs in winning the ball. It wasn't a stonewall penalty by any means, but that didn't stop the spot kick being awarded. Lampard made sure of the points, finding the roof of the net in trademark style.
Begovic had no chance on the penalty, but he managed to prevent the midfielder making it 4-0 a few minutes later, denying him his brace with another fine stop. But the Bosnian, who was showing just why Chelsea were so interested in him a few years ago, could do nothing whatsoever about what was to come.
Hazard had had a brilliant match, reducing Andy Wilkinson to even more thoroughly thuggish behaviour than usual with a dizzying array of tricks. He capped it off with a phenomenal effort 17 minutes from time, fizzing in a shot from 35 yards that swerved out of the goalkeeper's reach and screamed into the side netting. Had it not been for that Oscar goal against Juventus, we'd have a goal of the season candidate on our hands.
By that point, the points were in the bag and Rafa Benitez was ringing in the changes. Ba went off for Fernando Torres. Azpilicueta was removed for the eternally pretty figure of Paulo Ferreira. But the biggest news was John Terry coming on for Juan Mata.
The captain had been absent for months after injuring his knee against Liverpool, a spell which perhaps-not-coincidentally also marked a complete collapse in results. His reintroduction should provide a huge boost to a Chelsea side which desperately needs his leadership in the coming months.
That said, his only real contribution today was to provide Stoke with a penalty in injury time. A rather unclever kick out on Walters saw Marriner take pity on the fallen Potter, pointing to the spot and seemingly awarding the hosts a consolation goal. Walters, who desperately needed his confidence boosted after a nightmare of a match, stepped forward to take the shot, only to add a missed penalty to his resume.
It would not have been entirely inappropriate for Chelsea fans to utter a hearty guffaw at the poor striker's expense, although it was also difficult not to feel some sort of sympathy for a man embarrassing himself in front of thousands of people.
Thanks to Walters' brilliant demonstration of what Plato would have described as '[funning] awful football', the Blues' job was made far easier. Trips to the Britannia aren't supposed to result in 4-0 wins, and Pulis was right to be more than a little nonplussed at the result. But despite the scoreline being not entirely descriptive of the match, the three points were definitely deserved.
With the win and Tottenham's draw at Loftus Road, Chelsea climb back to third with a game in hand. Not a bad way to bounce back from the shock of losing to Swansea in midweek, I'm thinking.