We were dreaming of Chelsea making a late run to snatch fourth place from the jaws of despair. It's all right to admit it to hoping; we're all friends here. Well, except for Marks Hughes and Clattenburg*, who took umbrage to any of that namby-pamby crap and conspired to kick our collective dream like they were Phil Bardsley around a real footballer. The Blues' three-game winning run is gone, and focus moves away from the Premier League once more.
*It's obviously unbecoming to moan about the referee. Unbecoming like Clattenburg's bad refereeing.
Not that Guus Hiddink wanted any part of our fantasies anyway. Chelsea host Paris Saint-Germain in midweek and after that comes an FA Cup quarterfinal at Goodison Park. Since wins in those matches would represent progress towards actual silverware, Hiddink prioritised accordingly, fielding Bertrand Traore in Diego Costa's spot and deploying The Midfield of Incredible Sadness in John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic. A full-strength side this was not.
If someone was to show this year's version of Matic to a Chelsea fan from two years ago, they might assume he was bravely playing through some hideously debilitating disease. The player who signed from Benfica was assured, strong, reasonably quick and always in the right place. This version couldn't get the ball off Gianni Imbula if Imbula was blindfolded and tied to a chair, and (let's ignore the assist) seemed to gain some perverse joy in delivering hospital passes to his teammates. And perhaps Matic was contagious, because Mikel was a bit crap too.
Chelsea's problems getting the ball through midfield meant that the best they could do for a while was to hit and hope. That actually nearly worked shortly after kickoff when Branislav Ivanovic hammered a ball to the wing for Cesar Azpilicueta to cross first-time to Traore, but the youngster mistimed his volley and let Stoke escape.
Meanwhile, the Potters weren't looking particularly scary on the attack. Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic were causing the fullbacks some distress, certainly, but when everyone was back defending said distress didn't really translate to chances. It actually took Chelsea waking up for Stoke to look genuinely scary.
Committing everyone forward and then losing the ball is a great way to get torched on the counterattack, and had Mame Biraf Diouf been
more clinical at all clinical with his finishing the Blues might have found themselves 2-0 behind. First Ibrahim Affelay sacrificed his fingers to play a magnificent curving cross at the striker only to watch him turn the ball harmlessly wide, then he did basically the same thing when Shaqiri found him unmarked just after the half-hour mark.
The Blues had come weak finishing to thank for it remaining 0-0 but hadn't carved out any serious chances of their own when Traore opened the scoring virtually out of nowhere. Found by Matic in the middle of the pitch, the youngster was allowed to turn, advance on goal and then unleash a blistering shot just inside Jack Butland's far post. The last few games have been extraordinary for the Burkinabe, and this was the best moment of the lot.
Chelsea relaxed after the goal and more or less cruised their way to halftime, at which point the game reset itself and left the Blues stuck in their own half while Stoke failed to get much of anything going. The visitors were playing well, but the final ball was cut out time and time again -- the only real chance they had at an early equaliser came when Shaqiri sliced his way through midfield with a diagonal run and forced Thibaut Courtois to tip behind.
Slowly but surely, Chelsea began to exert themselves, this time doing their best to prevent the Potters from counterattacking at will. That mostly worked up until two pivotal moments, both involving Oscar.
It's not entirely clear to me how a rugby tackle in the box isn't a penalty. Oscar certainly thought it was, having been quite wrestled down by Marc Muniesa as the defender clumsily tried to turn a dangerous attack into a goal kick. Clattenburg was having none of it, deeming a jump on the back with no hope of getting near the ball a perfectly legal move. That's definitely going to come back to bite someone when Kurt Zouma gets healthy again.
Oscar also did his best to get Erik Pieters sent off. Having won a yellow card off the left back early in the second half, he baited him into another bad foul when Azpilicueta fed him on the right wing. Unfortunately, the cards stayed pocketed, and Pieters remained on the pitch.
Those decisions weren't the reason Stoke were able to get back into the match -- the goal was cheerily self-inflicted -- but they certainly helped. Chelsea did have chances to put the game to bed, but being Chelsea they spurned them. Strikers (we'll forgive Traore, considering his goal) sat back rather than attack crosses. Certain reigning Premier League Players of the Season who'll go unnamed couldn't really be bothered shooting or taking players on. It was all a bit dire.
And then with five minutes left the visitors scored. Willian, one of the few blameless so far this year, was just inside his own half when he tried to dribble his way between two Stoke players and lost possession. Everyone else was pushing up the pitch, expecting Willian to start an attack, so the defence was off-balance as Stoke countered, leaving them wide open. Shaqiri fizzed in a cross, Courtois jumped out in an attempt to cut it off before it reach Arnautovic in the centre and naturally his punch went straight to Diouf, who headed in to make it 1-1.
Bojan nearly won for Stoke it at the death when Chelsea adopted the unorthodox defensive strategy of letting an opposing player do whatever he wanted, but somehow the ball stayed out, leaving our long unbeaten run, if not our pride, intact.
On the plus side, a) we're not getting relegated so the league doesn't really matter and b) we successfully rested players for midweek. We'll have to do better than this showing against PSG, but stranger things have happened.