(Saturday 10 March 2012)
Didier Drogba’s 100th Premier League goal earned Chelsea a narrow victory, though the Blues dominated the game with a solid if unspectacular performance and, with more luck, could have run out more convincing winners.
The red card shown to Ricardo Fuller in the first half hardly helped Stoke’s cause, but the visitors continued to defend as solidly with 10 men as with 11. They did all they could to break up the game and make things difficult for the home team.
Chelsea were rarely troubled at the back – Cech didn’t have a real save to make – but the performance in attack was patchy. The Blues hit the woodwork three times but looked ponderous and unimaginative on occasions.
Skipper John Terry returned to the side after injury, with David Luiz dropping to the bench. Juan Mata, Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge were also consigned to the bench, giving Chelsea a more muscular starting XI against the usual physical Stoke line-up (though interim coach Roberto Di Matteo may also have rested these players with one eye on Wednesday’s Champions League game against Napoli).
Chelsea put pressure on the Stoke goal from early on, though the threat came from defenders Ivanovic, who headed just over the bar, and Cahill, whose crisp shot after a surging run brought the first of a string of good saves by Stoke keeper Begovic.
In the 25thminute referee Andre Mariner had little choice but to dismiss Fuller after he deliberately stamped on Ivanovic. This was inexplicable – even Stoke’s manager Tony Pulis didn’t attempt to defend Fuller, describing his actions as “ridiculous”.
Chelsea hit the woodwork for the first time after half an hour, when a John Terry header hit the bar, and Ivanovic then had a further header saved. The full-back seemed to be Chelsea’s most threatening attacker, getting even closer to goal with a thunderous shot that hit the bar just before half-time.
In between these attempts, Di Matteo decided that having two holding midfielders against a team with limited attacking ambition was not required, so replaced Meireles with Mata, who played just behind Drogba.
At half-time David Luiz replaced Ivanovic at right back but Chelsea didn’t seem to have the same impetus going forward as in the first half. They picked up the tempo after twenty minutes. A shot from John Terry whizzed past the post and then a perfectly placed free kick by Drogba was brilliantly saved by Begovic as the ball headed into the top corner.
However, two minutes later Chelsea were ahead, immediately after Sturridge replaced Mikel and Chelsea adopted a more attacking 4-3-3 shape. As so often this season Mata provided the vital assist, splitting the centre of the Stoke defence with a delightful pass that found Drogba, who took one touch to round the keeper before stroking the ball into the net.
While Stoke offered no real threat after conceding the goal, Chelsea were unable to build on their breakthrough – though the woodwork came to Stoke’s rescue for the third time a few minutes from the end when a Mata free-kick hit the post.
Talking after the game Roberto Di Matteo said he was pleased with his team’s patience and ability to grind out a result against a Stoke team who, as usual, defended well and with a lot of players. He suggested that the sending off made little real difference as Stoke continued to play with two lines of four, defending very deeply. And he pointed to the number of times that Chelsea hit the woodwork as evidence of Chelsea’s domination.
Chelsea will be looking for another clean sheet – but at least one more goal – against Napoli on Wednesday.
By Nick Sheppard