Match Review: Stoke City 1-2 Chelsea

Updated: March 19, 2017

Antonio Conte continued to prove the Premier League is a pinch of salt for him, as he led his side to victory on a tepid, mid-March Saturday afternoon at Stoke. That’s the saying, right? The Potters heard Conte’s criticisms of teams kicking his best players and took it to a new level, finishing with 10 men. Stoke deserve credit for being resolute throughout, but in the end Chelsea were clinical and gritty.

First Half

The first portion of the match certainly turned into The Costa Show. There has been a direct correlation in recent weeks between Costa’s drop off in form and the rise in him fighting defenders, again. Time and time again the Spaniard was found lay on the floor, often holding onto the leg of a defender as he stood over the striker. He was booked early on for dissent, too. I digress…

Chelsea lacked a cutting edge up front and the injured Eden Hazard appeared sorely missed. Willian and Pedro showed spirit, but nothing was quite coming off. It probably didn’t help that their target man was too often found prone on the ground. Willian, in particular, has perfected his flicks – they are world-class and he repeatedly set up a number of promising attacks. In the 13th minute the Brazilian showed a moment of cheekiness to score from a free-kick wide on the left. Though taken from an improbable angle, he whipped in the set-piece at Lee Grant’s near post, catching the goalkeeper off guard – a throwback to his free-kicks of last year.

Marcos Alonso had a right-footed shot saved by the Stoke ‘keeper from inside the box, shortly after the goal. The opportunity came from a slick feed by Victor Moses, who chipped the ball over the entire Stoke defense.

In the 34th minute, the home side had the ball in the net through Bruno Martins Indi, but the linesman had waved for a foul. Saido Berahino, who was stood in an offside position, pushed César Azpilicueta as he attempted to defend a cross.

Despite the disallowed goal being the correct decision, the home players and fans didn’t let the referee forget. Three minutes later came the make-up call. The softest of penalties you will see this season was given against Gary Cahill. In the England defenders defense, his biceps are massive so perhaps he doesn’t know his own strength. The referee signaled for a push on the back of Jonathan Walters, when in reality it was a mere tangle of legs that sent the Irishman to the floor. Nevertheless he picked himself up and gave Thibaut Courtois no chance with the penalty.

Second Half

At some point towards the start of the second half, Chelsea’s defense merged into a back four. Alonso sat deeper on the left and prioritized his defensive responsibilities, Cahill and David Luiz (who was again superb throughout, by the way) remained central, and Azpilicueta moved across to right-back. Victor Moses, who definitely wasn’t 100%, stayed further forward and was reluctant to track back.

The Blues dominated the second half, essentially playing with just two defenders at a time. Still, Stoke held firm as Chelsea dearly missed their silky Belgian maestro. In the 66th minute, Alonso, who should be taking free-kicks far more regularly, struck the woodwork from a dead ball about 25 yards out.

Shortly after his side hit the bar, Conte made his first change. Cesc Fàbregas was brought on for the hobbling Moses. He immediately looked to add an air of creativity to the side, also allowing N’Golo Kanté to make his usual transition into a marauding, box-to-box midfielder.

Despite retaining the majority of possession, Chelsea couldn’t fashion a good enough chance to break the deadlock. It was actually Conte’s second substitution which had the greater affect on the game. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, swanky new hairstyle and all, was brought on in place of Nemanja Matic in the 82nd minute. At this point the Blues could be identified as playing in the 4-2-3-1, at least on paper – in reality it was more of a 2-4-4.

Loftus-Cheek’s first touch of the game was a terrible flick-on to no one, but he showed his pace to chase after Erik Pieters and force him to poor back pass which resulted in a Chelsea corner. Fàbregas whipped the ball in for Luiz to cushion a header into the mixer. Pieters – having a terrible minute – fluffed his clearance right to ‘Sergio Ramos-lite’ Gary Cahill, who made no mistake from six yards out.  The goal sent Antonio Conte literally swinging from the dugout. For Chelsea fans, it is impossible not to love this man.

After scoring the late winner, Chelsea were happy to sit back and see out the victory. Loftus-Cheek was very impressive in his 8 minute cameo, and almost made me ignore the fact that Michy Batshuayi was left to twiddle his thumbs yet again. Almost. The Belgian should’ve been brought on earlier in the game when it was evident that Costa was still angry about FIFA from the night before.

The game was topped off by Phil Bardsley making his second horrible tackle of the game and getting sent off. The referee left it very late to protect the players.

21 points to go

Conte, in his post match interview, mentioned 21 as the magic number of points which Chelsea need in order to win the league from their remaining games. His side, yet again, are showing a desire to win these types of gritty games and they took another massive step towards the title.

This was the second game in a row in which a team has set out to specifically kick and hurt Chelsea. Chelsea have been remarkably restrained (apart from Costa) in response to these tactics, but opposition shouldn’t forget the snarl the Blues’ boss had as a player.

Interesting stats via Whoscored:

Diego Costa – dispossessed a joint high five times.

Pedro – five shots, just one went on target.

David Luiz – seven interceptions, three more than the next best (Kanté, of course).

Stoke City – made 16 fouls, six of their players were booked.

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