It's shocking how predictable matches involving Chelsea have become in recent weeks.
Start well. Take lead. Concede goal, usually in painfully laughable fashion. Halftime. Halftime over. Press, and press some more, for winner. Rinse, recycle, repeat.
Two weeks removed from rallying to defeat Hull
Tigers City at the KC Stadium - a performance in which it felt like the Blues were intent on making life as difficult as bloody possible - another rescue mission was required, this time against visiting Stoke City. Once again the hosts made it difficult for themselves and once again, Loïc Rémy emerged to calm everyone down. Thanks, Loïc.
The Frenchman's fifth league goal for Chelsea, after 62 minutes, was perhaps his easiest yet. Thanks, Asmir. More importantly, it proved to be the difference between the two sides in a very tense, very cagey 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea, as has been the case since January, was not at its best, but that matters little in retrospect; another three points bagged sees the Premier League leaders now seven points clear of the chasing pack with a game in hand. If it wasn't before, that fancy, ribbon-dressed trophy is definitely within view now.
Rémy's recent contribution has been vital, having now netted game-winning goals in successive matches, and figures to be even more essential after Diego Costa, on for Oscar at halftime, lasted just 11 minutes before succumbing to, in a shocking development, hamstring trouble. Jose Mourinho reckons Costa will miss at least two weeks; I'd be surprised, barring an historic collapse during the run-in, if we see him again this season.
Costa's introduction at the time seemed questionable at best, for reasons other than the Brazil-turned-Spain international's recent fitness struggles. Apart from Adam's flash of brilliance, Chelsea were at relative ease during the opening half against a Stoke side offering little, if anything, going forward. Sure, the buildup was at times labored and other times too intricate, but the openings were there and if not for some excellent shot-stopping from the aforementioned Asmir Begović, more than Hazard's beautifully casual penalty in the 39th minute would have been converted. If anything, the decision to bring on Costa implied panic. Has Mourinho lost trust in his players?
One couldn't blame him if so. There's a distinct lack of zeal in this side (apart from the masterful Hazard, who we'll touch on more later), and the way in which it continues to find ways to concede is more disturbing than frustrating. It remains to be seen whether Chelsea will, as some suggest, back into the title, but there is evidence that the side as currently constructed has severe problems. That said, I bet Arsene and his merry band of underachievers would love to back into a league title. So would every other club in England. We've put ourselves in this fine position (and it is indeed fine) through exceptional play and a truckload of determination; while recent struggles are certainly worrying, we're top of the league. Have a [fun]ing laugh.
Speaking of laughs. That's all I could do when Adam decided to have a crack from inside his own half just as halftime was approaching. Adam looks like he enjoys a pint; he usually plays like it, too. However, the 29-year-old (wait, he's only 29?) has always had lovely technique, so it wasn't all that surprising when he fashioned a go from 65 yards after 44 minutes. Said effort rifling past an outstretched but ultimately helpless Thibaut Courtois? Now, that was unexpected.
All Courtois could do was shrug. Meanwhile, Stamford Bridge was still coming to grips with Adam's audacious leveler when Costa was forced off early in the second half. Didier Drogba replaced the substitute, and looked every bit his age. Thankfully, Hazard and Willian were in the proverbial mood. Both menaced, creating regular openings as Stoke struggled to cope with the duo's skill and change of pace.
Hazard never stopped terrorizing, a constant source of inspiration in a sea of ordinary. Willian, meanwhile, never stopped running. It was his industry that provided the ultimate payoff when he was the first to reach Begović's truly bemusing throw-out toward Steven N'Zonzi. N'Zonzi had no idea what was going on when Willian ghosted in front of him before finding Hazard, who drove into the penalty area before laying off for Rémy to dispatch into an open net. It was an embarrassing moment for the goalkeeper, but a welcome one for the home support.
Mourinho reacted immediately by replacing Rémy with Juan Cuadrado and the January signing had his chance - in fact, two - to seal the points. Instead, the Colombian, in a rare appearance, wasted both when it appeared easier to score. Hazard, of course the orchestrator, could not believe it and neither could Mourinho, who offered one of the reactions of the season from his touchline seat. Moments later, N'Zonzi curled a wicked offering past Courtois and onto the far post.
Nerves were frayed but remained intact. Soon the win was confirmed, Chelsea's lead atop the league was seven, and we all could breathe again. Eight matches to go.