Today was a nice reminder that Chelsea are quite a good football team most of the time. The 3-0 win against Stoke wasn't about avenging the loss at the Britannia Stadium last December -- Oscar took care of that one with a peach of a free kick in the FA Cup, you'll recall -- it was all about staying in the hunt for the title and wiping away the memories of our midweek misadventures at the Parc des Prince. Mission accomplished.
If you've seen matches against the Potters before, you know exactly what to expect. Under Mark Hughes, they're not quite as thuggishly inclined as their earlier incarnations*, but they're not exactly a slick passing side just yet, and they're ferocious enough in the tackle to induce a certain level of sloppiness in their opponents. And so Chelsea began sloppily and Stoke played to their talent: i.e. not particularly well.
*Unless they're losing and cranky, the poor dears.
After the furore about Jose Mourinho's comments regarding strikers, the collective media must have been shocked to see Fernando Torres hustling and bustling in the early going. He fired a thumping drive wide of Asmir Begovic's goal in the ninth minute, and a quarter of an hour later some good anticipation led to him nicking in ahead of a backpass but failing to find the net after a fine save. Unfortunately, the fire went out after that miss -- but at least Torres' teammates were around to pick up the slack.
It was Mohamed Salah who ended up making the breakthrough, on his full debut no less. From a throw-in, Nemanja Matic bullied his way to the byline, shaking off the muscular attentions of Steven Nzonzi in the process. The midfielder's subsequent cutback was superb, scything through a thicket of bodies before being met by Salah 15 yards out. Begovic got a touch to the shot, but not enough to stop it fizzing into the back of the net. 1-0 Chelsea.
The second looked to have arrived shortly thereafter. The visitors managed to hack clear a corner, but the ball was quickly recycled to Frank Lampard on the right, and his cross was headed in by the hulking figure of Branislav Ivanovic, who wheeled away to celebrate only to see the goal ruled out by an exceptionally late offside call. It was a tight decision, but ultimately an inconsequential one.
With the match still in the balance at halftime, Hughes made some sweeping changes to his team, introducing Charlie Adam and Andy Wilkinson, apparently with instructions to follow the programming of their Stoke DNA kick every Chelsea player in sight. Within minutes, Adam had trod hard (and, knowing Adam, deliberately) on Andre Schurrle's foot, leaving the German in a pile on the pitch, and Wilkinson managed to upstage him a little while later by fouling Salah. In the box. Oops.
The Egyptian had been set free by a typically craft backheel from Eden Hazard, who had been dropped to the bench in order to get some much-needed rest only to be introduced for Schurrle shortly after Adam went all stampy-stampy. Hazard might have been expecting to roll home the spot kick himself, but Lampard was around and Stamford Bridge's reigning king of penalties... saw his effort saved by Begovic.
No matter, though -- he'd just tap home the rebound from close range to make it 2-0.
Stoke were by this time playing as dirtily as humanly possible, and since Lee Probert wasn't handing out any cards for some stupid reason Chelsea got in on the act as well, with Lampard doing us all proud by hacking down Adam in what seemed like a calculated and praiseworthy act of retribution. But while the Potters were committing fouls and blasting aimlessly from range*, the Blues were committing fouls and then transitioning into some classy-looking attacks.
*This sentence might have taken a slightly different tone had Marko Arnautovic managed to control Nzonzi's raking ball forward just after Lampard's goal.
We might have had more goals, but the one we actually got, from Willian, was probably worth a few on his own. With Stoke pushed up, there was a huge amount of space in the midfield, and Salah sauntered through it, passing to the Brazilian as the visitors' defence backed up against the penalty area. Presented with such a wonderful opportunity, Willian didn't disappoint, curling a shot past Ryan Shawcross to kill off the match once and for all.
The closing stages were about damage control for Stoke, who could easily have conceded another after a driving Salah run was ended clumsily by Erik Pieters just inside the penalty box, but Chelsea weren't that interested in pushing for more. 3-0 was enough to go a point clear at the top of the league -- for now, at least -- and we have some fairly large fish to fry in midweek. Bring on Paris Saint-Germain!