I've tried quite hard to forget what happened at Stoke last season. Something about Andre Schurrle and a last-minute goal from a Liverpool loanee to win it for the Potters, wasn't it? Decidedly unpleasant, no matter how you slice it. But struggling at the Britannia is hardly unique to last season. Or indeed, unique to Chelsea. This is a difficult place to come, and the three points today were hardly assured.
Until, that is, about 90 seconds into the match. A corner, won by the combination of Branislav Ivanovic and the twinkle-toed Eden Hazard, was swung into the Stoke box. The hosts, for years such imperious opposition on set pieces, contrived to let John Terry get a free header (Geoff Cameron the man at fault), with predictable results. Chelsea were 1-0 to the good almost before we had time to settle in and enjoy the match.
Mark Hughes' game plan would have been to keep it at 0-0 for as long as possible before hitting on the counter in the second half, which is how Newcastle were able to break the unbeaten run two weeks ago. But with that scheme up in smoke, Stoke looked utterly lost. They reacted the only way they really knew how: attempting to injure our players.
Phil Bardsley, removed from Sunderland and placed in his natural habit, was only too happy to keep up his tradition of assaulting diminutive Chelsea playmakers, this time with a flying scissor tackle on poor Hazard with the ball already out of play. To the braying denizens of the Britannia terraces, this was obviously a heinous crime on Hazard's part. To the majority of the planet, it was a clear red card offence. To referee Neil Swarbrick, after some consideration, it was a booking.
Whatever it was, the act of random violence seemed to bring the Potters back to their senses, and they very nearly found themselves level shortly thereafter. Granted, it would have been a ludicrous goal to concede -- Steven N'Zonzi's shot was speculative in the extreme -- but silly goals count as much as brilliant ones, and after deflecting off Cesar Azpilicueta and wrong-footing Thibaut Courtois, hearts were in mouths as the ball began trundling line-wards. But a wrong-footed Courtois is still a rather capable one, and the Belgian went flying to his left to parry the ball behind for a corner.
That was as close as Stoke came to scoring in the first half. Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel were magnificent in the centre of the pitch, utterly annihilating the hosts whenever they had the temerity to come forwards, and the match would have been out of sight by the break if not for some odd passages of play.
First Swarbrick (yes, the referee) contrived to intercept a pass while Chelsea were on a four-on-two break and then, perhaps even more strangely, Diego Costa missed a one on one after being played clean through by Cesc Fabregas. Perhaps he thought he was offside -- everyone else did -- but the tackle from Matic to set up the move, to say nothing of Fabregas' through ball, deserved better than a finish that beat Asmir Begovic but scudded yards wide of the far post.
Still, no harm done, and Chelsea were in commanding position at halftime. Stoke attempted to get themselves back into the match by pushing further up the pitch and throwing hitman-cum-playmaker Charlie 'Legbreaker' Adam into the fray, and had the midfielder's 20-yard effort found the net rather than the ad hoardings in the 71st minute, perhaps everyone's mood would be a little more sour.
But he missed, giving the Blues a chance to respond. Inevitably it was Hazard who made the chance, fizzing a pass into Fabregas' feet as Diego Costa dragged defenders this way and that in the Potters' area. Fabregas had plenty of work to do, but his first touch was brilliant, leaving Ryan Shawcross for dead and working the ball into space. One extremely bobbled finish past a flummoxed Begovic later, and it was 2-0. The game was over.
The game might have been over-er had Costa found the net after a great run from substitute Andre Schurrle, but the striker managed only to shoot straight down Begovic's throat with what turned out to be the last chance of the match. Still, there was enough time for Jonathan Walters to give Hazard's achilles a nice raking -- I suppose going away from the Britannia entirely unscathed would have been far too much to ask.
Anyway, that's one of our toughest away fixtures navigated with full points. After a tough run to the northeast, it's nice to get a win, and we're going to be three points clear of Manchester City for Christmas. Can't ask for much more than that.