STOKE — Three quick thoughts from the bet365 Stadium as Chelsea completed a 2-1 win against Stoke City on Saturday to extend their Premier League lead to 13 points.
1. Chelsea find way to win without Hazard
Antonio Conte insisted on Friday that he respects every member of his squad but he clearly trusts only a few; since the shift to 3-4-3 in late September, just 13 different Chelsea players have been picked to start Premier League matches.
Eden Hazard’s absence — the Belgian international was left in London as a precaution after picking up an injury in training — wasn’t enough to alter this policy in Stoke, either. This was just the second Premier League game Hazard has missed this season. For the first, a 1-0 away win over Sunderland on Dec. 14, it was Cesc Fabregas who provided what Conte calls the “fantasy” in attack, winning Man of the Match and scoring the game’s only goal.
Clearly concerned with Stoke’s aerial threat, Conte favoured Matic over Fabregas this time and Chelsea missed the latter’s poise as well as his vision in the opening minutes, with passes going astray and spells of possession more mechanical and less imaginative than usual.
Yet this Chelsea team always seem to find a way to win.
In the 13th minute, Stoke’s pressing left Marcos Alonso open and the former Fiorentina man galloped down the left before winning a free kick in a crossing position. Or so Lee Grant thought; instead, Willian whipped in a clever shot that squirmed just inside his near post.
Just as against West Ham, Chelsea scored with their first real attack but despite occasionally threatening a second, with Alonso stinging Grant’s palms after latching onto a brilliant Victor Moses dink through the Stoke defence, Conte’s side never appeared fully comfortable or in control.
Stoke thought they had equalised in the 33rd minute when Bruno Martins Indi powered a header beyond Thibaut Courtois, only for Saido Berahino to be penalised for a push on Cesar Azpilicueta in the build up. Yet they were made to wait just four more minutes for their goal: Jonathan Walters tempted Gary Cahill into a push in the penalty area before lashing in the spot-kick himself.
Chelsea’s greatest second-half threat came in the form of Pedro’s direct running. Then, Fabregas was finally introduced on 70 minutes and made a key contribution as Chelsea summoned their champions’ resolve to find a late winner. David Luiz met an in-swinging Fabregas corner with a header that Erik Pieters could only touch into the path of Cahill, who fired in to redeem his penalty mistake.
Stoke’s misery was compounded when Phil Bardsley was shown a second yellow for catching the Spaniard late in the final seconds. And even on days when the “fantasy” of Hazard deserts them, Chelsea’s dream season goes on unhindered.
2. Conte’s management style revives agitated Costa
Since being dropped by Conte after a training ground row over a back injury and a lucrative offer from Chinese Super League club Tianjin Quanjian, Diego Costa has scored four goals in nine Chelsea matches. In the 21 appearances prior to the January drama, he’d contributed 14 goals and five assists. As dips in form go, it is one most strikers would take but nobody is talking about Costa as a potential PFA Player of the Year now. N’Golo Kante has usurped him as the team’s obvious driving force, while Hazard now looks the most dangerous attacking threat.
More worryingly for Conte, recent matches have also seen Costa abandon his newfound resolve for “showing his passion in the right way.” Manchester United defenders managed to take him out of his game with physical tactics during Monday’s fiery FA Cup quarterfinal, and Stoke were clearly taking notice. No reunion between Costa and Ryan Shawcross was likely to end in cuddles and compliments, but many of Chelsea’s first-half struggles were directly related to their striker spending more of his time wrestling opposition defenders than providing an effective focal point.
In a moment of clarity, Costa did play the pass to release Alonso in the build up to Willian’s free-kick goal, but much of his opening 45 minutes was a running battle with Stoke defenders, who appeared to be taking turns to foul and rile him.
Moments after Willian’s goal, in protest at another tussle that sent him to the floor, Costa exploded at referee Anthony Taylor. The response was a yellow card and Conte sent Michy Batshuayi to warm up as an attempt to remind his striker to focus on testing Grant instead.
It was an idle threat — Batshuayi has not played more than six minutes in a Premier League match since November — but it appeared to have the desired effect. Costa was far more restrained and refined after the break, holding up play intelligently and providing a platform for teammates to shine. In the closing minutes, Costa even began to look rampant again, leading every Chelsea counter with power and menace, lashing one shot off the post.
An 18th Premier League goal of the season was denied but on this evidence, there will be plenty more if Conte can keep his eyes focused on the prize.
3. Spirited Stoke proud in close defeat
In the wake of Monday’s hard-fought FA Cup win over United, Conte said he hoped Chelsea would always face teams that “want to beat us playing football.” It’s debatable whether Stoke’s approach met his standards, but the Premier League leaders have rarely been pushed so close this season.
At first glance it was a surprise to see Peter Crouch, so effective during the last meeting between these teams at Stamford Bridge in December, on the bench. But it soon became clear that Mark Hughes wanted his players to hassle Chelsea all over the pitch, led by the more mobile Walters and Saido Berahino.
Roared on by a vociferous home crowd, Stoke turned the match into a disjointed, scrappy battle that played to their physical advantage. Were it not for Berahino’s push on Azpilicueta, momentum would have shifted their way earlier in the first half, and after the interval they continued to be their own worst enemies in the final third, slicing shots and final passes well away from their intended targets.
There was more than an element of fortune in Chelsea’s winning goal on 87 minutes, too late for a tiring Stoke to conjure one final twist. Phil Bardsley’s red card in the final minutes was inconsequential in the context of Cahill’s shattering strike.
Conte’s delirious celebrations at the final whistle were the biggest compliment of all to Hughes, even though he is unlikely to interpret them as such. Stoke are ninth in the Premier League for a reason and Chelsea departed the bet365 Stadium pitch weary in the knowledge that their 22nd victory of this remarkable campaign was also one of the hardest to earn.