Apparently Chelsea thought that there hadn’t been quite enough excitement for the fans of late, and decided to give us a special treat to see off 2016. Clean sheets and comfortable victories are great and all, but after a slew of straightforward games what the supporters really needed was a complete meltdown of a match, one to raise blood pressure and tighten sphincters around the globe. As long as three points arrived, the Blues apparently thought that inflicting a string of heart attacks upon us all would be all fun and games.
And at the end of the day, I suppose it was.
When kickoff arrived at Stamford Bridge, we had was little inkling of what was to come. Pedro missed out through suspension, while Nemanja Matic was rested through fear of suspension. Stoke City came in fresh off a hammering at Anfield, and having picked up two points in their previous four matches Mark Hughes’ side didn’t look like serious threats to trouble the rolling Blues. The script was simple: Chelsea would score, probably quite early on, and then pick off the Potters as they desperately tried to find a way into the match.
For 45 minutes, all seemed to go more or less according to plan. Stoke ran a back three in an attempt to stymie the Blues’ forward trio, which stopped Eden Hazard and Willian from having much influence early but also limited the Potters’ threat to set pieces from Charlie Adam. Barring a couple of sneaky low deliveries, cleared expertly by Cesar Azpilicueta and then Xhedran Shaqiri (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that hoofing the ball into Row Z when he had a free look on goal was intentional), Stoke offered little. Instead, they waited for Chelsea to take the game to them, trusting in their hulking defenders to see them through.
It was visitors’ goalkeeper, however, who ensured it took the Blues as long as it did to break the deadlock. Lee Grant isn’t even first choice at the Brittania — he’s deputising for the injured Jack Butland — but on today’s first-half performance he has a long future in the Premier League.
Grant’s first real save was so ridiculous that it’s not even clear that he meant it. The returning Diego Costa took advantage of some lax defensive work from Mame Biram Diouf on a corner, stealing in at the far post to chest down a lofted pass. A thunderous right-footed volley followed, catching Grant flush in the chest. A rebound was inevitable, but luck smiled on the Potters — the ball bounced off the unsuspecting Bruno Martins Indi and then straight back into Grant’s arms. Stoke had escaped.
If there was a touch of fortune about Grant’s first act of wizardry, the second was all his own. David Luiz stopped limping around in his own half for long enough to loft a delight of a pass to Costa, the delivery travelling 70 yards and so thoroughly flummoxing Ryan Shawcross that he must have temporarily thought he was a real footballer. Costa’s first touch was exquisite, but his second was loose enough that Grant could make a challenge. The ball popped out to Hazard, who must have thought he had an open goal, but just as it looked like a lead was inevitable, Grant rose from the ground to tip the shot to safety.
It was magnificent work, and was totally overshadowed by the fact that Chelsea scored from the subsequent corner. Cesc Fabregas had been amusing himself and avoiding the ponderous lumps in Stoke’s defence by taking corners short. This time he changed things up, whipping in a lethal ball which caught Shawcross and Martin Indi by surprise, allowing Gary Cahill to steam in and head home, nearly decapitating Glen Johnson in the process. Grant had no chance, and the Blues were 1-0 to the good.
All the evidence suggested that the opener would also be the end of things. Chelsea had given up two leads all season (none since September), and hadn’t conceded a goal since the 3-1 win at the Etihad in November. Cahill’s header had also left the Potters visibly deflated. Heads dropped and the Blues began to surge. When halftime arrived anything other than a comfortable win seemed like a ludicrous proposition.
Then everything went totally off the rails.
Chelsea had been having trouble moving the ball down their right all match, and within seconds of kickoff some weak passing forced them into a needless free kick just inside the half. Normally that would have been harmless enough, but when you have Peter Crouch lurching around in your area every set piece is accompanied by a certain measure of fear.
That fear proved warranted: Crouch beat a backpedalling Cahill to Adams’ cross and nodded back across the box, where neither N’Golo Kante nor Fabregas had tracked Martins Indi. The defender’s finish wasn’t the most assured, but it was enough: the ball rolled apologetically into the bottom corner and Chelsea’s hard-fought advantage (and clean sheet streak) was gone.
Twelve months ago and we might have expected the Blues to wilt in the face of adversity. This vintage, however, is made of sterner stuff. Prompted, presumably, by Antonio Conte’s incandescent touchline rage, Chelsea sprung forward, penning the visitors back and looking rather more threatening than they had all game. It didn’t take long for their response to register on the scoresheet.
Victor Moses had had a quiet game. Up against Erik Pieters, he’d mostly been getting the worst of things at both ends of the pitch. Going forward, Moses had been totally unable to get his crosses past the Dutchman and he’d also picked up a (soft) yellow card trying to track him to the corner flag while the match was still scoreless. The stage was set, in other words, for Erik Pieters to be utterly destroyed.
Words won’t do this justice:
Suddenly free, and with his direct opponent forced into shameful retirement, nobody would have blamed Moses for floating a cross towards Costa and declaring his work over. Instead, he chose the more challenging path of picking out a teammate with a pass to feet. Chelsea were rewarded for the decision.
Hazard had plenty to do — Moses’s ball was accurate but hit with some serious pace, and he was surrounded by red and white shirts to boot — but made it look easy with an expertly weighted layoff to Willian. The Brazilian, closed down by a gaggle of defenders, had to hit it first time, and so he did, firing a bouncing snapshot beyond Grant to restore the Blues’ advantage.
If anyone was expecting a return to normal service, however, they would find themselves sorely mistaken. Stoke had inadvertently stumbled upon Chelsea’s Achilles heel, and his name was Peter Crouch. Having set up the first equaliser, the world’s gangliest professional now scored the second outright, taking advantage of a ludicrous set of defensive errors (Kante’s flying clearance attempt was particularly noteworthy) to tap in from Diouf’s low cross.
After picking the ball out of his own net just twice during the Blues’ 12-match winning run, Thibaut Courtois had found himself matching that tally in 18 minutes. Against Stoke. But before anyone had time to say ‘clearly it’s just one of those days’, Chelsea were back in front.
With Bojan on the ball deep in his own half, the Blues opted for a heavy press. Cahill moved up from the defensive line to harass the former Barcelona youngster, eventually forcing a loose pass which Fabregas was only too happy to clean up. Cahill turned the midfielder’s challenge into a brilliant one-two, cushioning the ball into space at the top of the area, and Fabregas was able to feed Willian to smash in at the near post.
It was 3-2 Chelsea with less than half an hour to play. In previous matches, the Blues had held a one-goal lead without really worrying about it. There had been nervous moments and close calls, none closer than the injury-time escape at Sunderland, but for 12 games on the trot Chelsea had defended calmly and without fear.
The atmosphere around Stamford Bridge was very different this time around. Having shown that they could breach the Blues’ rearguard and that it wasn’t a fluke, any hint of Stoke pressure was answered with a palpable jangling of nerves. In the corresponding fixture last year, the Potters snatched a late equaliser; few would have ruled out a similar outcome this time around. Unless, that is, Chelsea managed to extend their lead.
The two sides exchanged good chances, with Willian and Hazard combining on the counterattack only to see Costa miss a straightforward chance before Azpilicueta saved everyone’s bacon by lunging to take a tap-in away from Crouch The All-Powerful. But fortune and skill favoured the Blues, who finally put the game to bed in the 85th minute via the slightly surprising vehicle of a routine throw-in.
Marcos Alonso probably didn’t expect much to come of waving the ball in the vague direction of the Stoke penalty box, but Adam completely misjudged his clearing header, flicking it behind him rather than into touch. Suddenly it was a battle between Costa and Martins Indi for the ball, and although the latter was in pole position he didn’t seem quite sure what to do. His split-second hesitation proved fatal: Costa sprung into action, shrugging off a delayed challenge from the centre half before firing into the top corner from a tight angle.
The contest was finally over. It wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t very pretty, but the Blues had secured yet another win. There’s a nasty-looking set of fixtures coming up in the new year, but for now we can enjoy ending 2016 on top of the pile.