It’s been a long time since we got any late heroics from Chelsea. Thibaut Courtois rescued a win for us up in Sunderland thanks to a last-gasp save from Patrick van Aanholt, sure, but in the final reckoning earning a win lingers longer in the memory than preserving one. And (until today, of course) for late winners we have to go all the way back to August, when Diego Costa earned us two last-minute victories in as many matches.
Granted, the Blues haven’t exactly been drowning in opportunities for winning matches at the death. Over the past 21 matches, they’ve been busy earning more punctual victories instead; only twice in that run have we entered the 80th minute with the scoreline level. Late victories are more stressful than cruising to straightforward wins, of course, but Chelsea’s habit of having things wrapped up well in advance has deprived us of some amusing celebrations.
Conte is an absolute madman. I love it. pic.twitter.com/hJ7ZazNA4p— Priya Ramesh (@Priya8Ramesh) March 18, 2017
That’s Antonio Conte getting so excited at Gary Cahill’s 87th-minute goal that he decided that the Bet365 Stadium couldn’t contain his explosive joy. The manager somehow managed to scale the dugout with both fists pumping, and for all I know kept climbing until he’d escaped Stoke entirely. Hopefully someone’s found him by now.
That Cahill was the impetus behind Conte’s manic celebrations was in many ways perfect. For a full 50 minutes it looked as though the vice-captain would be the scapegoat behind a rare Chelsea blip. As his teammates beat their heads against the Potters’ striped, angry wall, it was difficult not to look back at Cahill’s push on honourable Blue Jon Walters as the source of our troubles. That he’d eventually clean up the mess was only fitting.
That there was a mess at all was a little perplexing. Like at Turf Moor, the last place Chelsea gave any ground in the title race, the match began well, and the Blues were ahead within a quarter of an hour. Marko Arnautovic, restored to the Stoke side after missing their 0-0 draw at Manchester City, left Marcos Alonso in too much space, and, attempting to make up for the error, brought down his man instead. From the free kick, Chelsea took the lead.
Lee Grant’s heroics in goal when these two sides met at Stamford Bridge were part of the reason that the reverse fixture was so tight, but he produced a real clanger for the opener. Assuming that a cross was coming in — the angle was tight — he cheated hard to his right. Willian spotted it and made him pay, bending his delivery towards the near post. Grant recovered enough to get two hands to the ball, but couldn’t keep the shot from bouncing in. 1-0.
The match was Chelsea’s to lose. Victor Moses was the next player to come close, denied by an Erik Pieters block when he attempted to sweep home Willian’s pullback. Alonso nearly made it 2-0 after a smart set piece routine gave him a free sight of goal from the penalty spot, but his finish wasn’t good enough and Grant was able to keep it at bay.
Stoke, meanwhile, were borrowing lines from Manchester United’s Monday script. Jose Mourinho’s side had spent their previous match kicking Eden Hazard into oblivion. Deprived of that particular target by a training injury, the Potters settled for kicking just about everyone. Joe Allen got the first of their six yellow cards for a foul on Pedro, which did absolutely nothing to stop the hosts from fouling everyone that moved. Diego Costa joined Allen in the book for dissent after an egregious miss from referee Anthony Taylor.
The officiating was already contentious in the early stages, but as Stoke attempted to batter their way back into the match things only got worse. A rare set piece gave the hosts a chance to draw level in the 33rd minute, but although Bruno Martins Indi powered Geoff Cameron’s flick home, the goal was disallowed thank to Saido Berahino pushing over Cesar Azpilicueta while offside. Stoke were incensed, but it was probably the right decision. At any rate, they’d get the next close call in their favour.
Any team that needs close decisions to go their way to keep a lead probably doesn’t deserve it, but Chelsea’s reaction to the near miss wasn’t to step up their defensive game but to put the match back into the referee’s hands. A harmless-looking free kick was conceded on the right, and although Thibaut Courtois claimed the delivery with minimal ado, Cahill had contrived to send Walters sprawling via an ill-considered push combo. Taylor pointed to the spot but spared Cahill the humiliation of a red card, and Walters belied his reputation by blasting a fierce penalty beyond Courtois’ reach.
The Blues had a half-chance to reclaim the lead before the interval, but Pedro fired just over after seeing his first shot blocked. Mostly, though, they spent their time being kicked. Costa was laid out by a flying kick from Phil Bardsley which somehow failed to draw a red card, while David Luiz found himself flat on his back after a more innocent-looking challenge by Saido Berahino. Chelsea were frustrated, hurt and had given up their lead: Mark Hughes’ halftime team talk must have consisted mostly of cackles.
Rather than go for broke after the break, the Blues slowly ramped up the pressure, forcing Stoke slowly backwards and looking for openings. Alonso had a shot blocked after a smart through ball from Pedro, who was at the end of an incisive pass himself a few minutes later only to be hacked down by Pieters. It was set pieces, however, that seemed the more likely route in. David Luiz had nearly drawn Grant into parrying a long-range free kick straight to Costa, and from the Pieters foul Alonso rattled the crossbar with a sweet strike which really ought to have been a foot lower.
With 70 minutes elapsed and the score still 1-1, Conte switched things up. Back in December, the Blues briefly switched to a 4-2-3-1 in an attempt to break down a recalcitrant West Brom defence, and the same trick was pulled here. Off came Victor Moses, on came Cesc Fabregas.
The move put Stoke on the back foot, and within minutes of the substitution Grant had to bail the hosts out with another save. But going from three at the back to two naturally opened up some space for them to poke at, and we endured some nervy moments as gaps manifested themselves in our defence. That said, the Potters never actually managed to trouble Courtois in the second half -- their only shot on goal all match was Walters’ penalty.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek made a surprise appearance as Conte tried to turn one point to three, and it was his intervention that sparked the chance for the winner. With Chelsea looking unlikely to score, he hounded the rather flummoxed Pieters deep in the Stoke half, winning a corner kick out of nothing. That corner was deposited onto David Luiz’s head, and although his effort was blocked, Pieters failed to get the ball clear and Gary Cahill was at hand to lash home from close range.
Cahill’s goal marked the fifth time Chelsea had taken the lead against the Potters so far this season, having blown three of them. Mercifully, this goal stuck. There was no fightback on the cards, and if anything the hosts were lucky to get away without conceding another. Loftus-Cheek twice broke down the left, wasting one chance with a daft pass and being denied by Grant on the second. Costa hit the post with a snapshot as he looked to find his way on the scoresheet. Stoke were nowhere near threatening another equaliser — they were barely threatening to escape their own half.
That’s not to say that they couldn’t make another mark on the match, however. As time ran down, the inevitable occurred: Bardsley, on a booking after his first-half assault on Costa and somehow escaping further punishment despite being resolutely Phil Bardsley for an entire match, went in late on Fabregas in the corner flag, forcing Taylor to send him to a not-very-early bath. That red card didn’t help us on the day, but we can take solace in the fact that the league will be denied this particular scourge on the game for at least another week.
As Bardsley was contemplating future targets in the locker room (how sad for him that Hazard missed the match through injury!), the Chelsea players were celebrating. Four minutes of stoppage time had elapsed and the lead atop the table had extended itself to 13 points. With ten matches to go — Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur each have a game in hand, admittedly — that’s not a bad place to be.