Not the way Chelsea would have been looking to start the season, but there were plenty of encouraging signs against a fairly tough opponent away from home. In the first real game of Andre Villas-Boas' Chelsea career, against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium, the Blues ended up held 0-0 thanks to some combination of lacklustre play in the final third, Asmir Begovic being on top form, and Mark Halsey being a bit of a prat. It was an improvement over last year's trip up to the Potteries though, so that's nice.
That's a pretty boring win probability chart on account of not much happening at all. So it goes sometimes. Andre Villas-Boas pulled a fast one on more or less everyone by dropping Didier Drogba to the bench and starting Fernando Torres at centre forward, flanking him with Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou. The rest of the team was more or less as expected, with the now-familiar triangle of John Obi Mikel, Ramires and Frank Lampard designated to control the midfield and a back line of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Alex and Jose Bosingwa protecting Petr Cech.
It was a 4-3-3 against what was essentially a 4-2-3-1 from Stoke in the early going, Jonathan Walters dropping behind Kenwyne Jones throughout the match. But that was to be expected, and Chelsea's inability to deal with them from the off was slightly disconcerting. Tony Pulis claimed that Stoke 'gave as good as they got' in the first half, but he's probably wrong - they were by far the more threatening side before the break, and although they didn't generate any clear-cut chances they put the Blues under a huge amount of pressure.
Most of that pressure was applied via the strong throws of Rory Delap. Stoke were dominant on their right thanks to Florent Malouda refusing to help Ashley Cole, who often ended up covering multiple players without any support - a surefire way to get drawn out of position badly. All too often, the Chelsea back line could do little more than put the ball out for a throw-in, and that's bad news when you're playing Stoke.
Fortunately, nothing really came of the throwins except for several instances of Ryan Shawcross being a huge, huge tool. The defender earned a booking for an early foul on Torres, who was the Chelsea player looking likeliest to do anything in the first half, but he was apparently uncowed by the yellow card and did his level best to sexually assault Cech whenever Stoke had a set piece anywhere near his box. It was mildly uncomfortable to watch. The closest the home side got to scoring was when they appealed for a penalty after John Terry's should was hit by the ball; it was rightly turned down.
The Blues, of course, had a couple of opportunities in the first half. Bosingwa came closest with a cross-cum-shot that Begovic was forced to tip onto his near post, Torres was denied a neat scoring opportunity when Robert Huth (who was outstanding at right-back all game) got a lucky touch and good play by Ramires resulted in a low cross along the six-yard line that Malouda couldn't be bothered getting on position to convert. Still, Stoke were enjoying themselves in a way Chelsea were not. That would change after halftime, possibly because Chelsea stopped aimlessly punting the ball long.
Although Stoke earned a corner in the first minute of the second half, they were barely on the attack for the rest of the match. Chelsea poured forwards, and started to force Asmir Begovic into some very good stops. The Bosnian tipped over a vicious Mikel strike from range and managed to deflect an effort from substitute Nicolas Anelka onto the post in superb fashion along with several other fairly routine stops.
The hosts were also aided by the bizarre refereeing of Mark Halsey, who managed to turn down what appeared to be legitimate calls for two free kicks on the edge of the box and two penalties within the span of about ten minutes. Pretty annoying, it must be said.
But blaming the referee for the draw would be slightly silly - there were clear flaws in the way Chelsea were playing. Kalou had a poor game, as did Malouda. Frank Lampard was entirely anonymous. The team lost their shape a little bit (surprise) when Drogba came on to play alongside Torres. Instead of pressing their advantage, the Blues started messing about with the ball around the box and then taking ridiculous shots from range*. Despite Torres playing very well indeed, the rest of the squad was unable to supply him with the ball in space - he was having to create it himself by weaving past defenders, and there were simply too many of them.
*The one from Bosingwa which hit Yossi Benayoun in the head was pretty funny though.
So, there are issues beyond Halsey that need to be addressed. In this setup, Lampard is a problem. Cole and Malouda need to play more than 20 minutes of the match. The defence looked fairly poor, especially in the first half. Jose Bosingwa still can't cross. On the other hand, Chelsea did play well enough to win, which is more than can be said of the club's last visit to the Britannia, and Stoke are a very difficult team to outplay at home. So, despite dropping some points, I'd say the 0-0 draw was more encouraging than anything else. What think you?