Chelsea’s slim title hopes appear to have all but ended following Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Stoke, a result which, coupled with Manchester United’s 4-2 success at West Ham, means the current Champions are now eleven points behind with only eight games to play. Yet in spite of the disappointment of dropping two points this was a real thriller which would have had both sets of supporters walking away from the ground thinking they should have won. In their end there were only two goals, brilliant first-half efforts from Jon Walters and Didier Drogba respectively, but both teams have their goalkeepers and their goalposts to thank for ensuring that number wasn’t much greater.
With Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Manchester United in mind Carlo Ancelotti rested Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres, but apart from that duo it was pretty much a full-strength Chelsea side that lined up to face a side they hadn’t dropped points against in the Premier League era. Much of the Blues’ preparation was undone after only seven minutes when the Potters opened the scoring. David Luiz was frustratingly casual going to pick up a ball on halfway and was caught napping by Jon Walters. With many in blue ahead of the ball Walters had acres of space to advance into, eventually turning inside the overcommitted Michael Essien inside the box before firing expertly past Petr Cech. It was a fine individual goal but questions must also be asked both of Chelsea’s defending and their continuing habit of conceding early in away games. This was the eighth occasion in the league this season that we have conceded a goal in the first twenty minutes of an away game, also suffering at Blackburn, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Tottenham, Wolves and Sunderland. This frustrating habit must surely be considered a key factor in our inevitable inability to retain our league crown.
To our credit Chelsea responded very well to this early adversity. Ashley Cole (‘he shoots who he wants’) met a wonderfully teasing Florent Malouda with a diving header which was tipped wide by a stretching Begovic. Ten minutes later Frank Lampard hit a sweet volley from the edge of the box but unfortunately it was only straight at the Stoke keeper and his fumble didn’t quite fall to Nicolas Anelka. By now Chelsea were having most of the possession and it didn’t come as a huge surprise when they equalised. Anelka floated a cross from deep behind Stoke’s defence and Drogba ghosted in to emphatically head home his strike partner’s ball. Thirty minutes were gone.
The rest of the half was played out with Chelsea pressing but struggling to open up a stubborn Stoke rear guard led by the imperious Robert Huth, and indeed it was Kenwyne Jones who went closest to scoring but his shot was deflected into a grateful Cech’s arms.
The second half began in lively fashion with Jermaine Pennant forcing Cech to save well with his feet after yet another Stoke counter-attack had split the Blues open. Drogba then hit the outside of the post with a slide-rule finish having been played in by Ramires. Ancelotti subbed the Brazilian and Anelka on 60 and this seemed to hand the initiative back to Stoke who began to dominate again. Marc Wilson’s powerful free-kick rattled the underside of the bar with a slight touch from Cech helping to keep it out, and a minute later the big Czech keeper was at his brilliant best, this time tipping Huth’s powerful header onto the bar from point-blank range. Jones threatened again having wriggled free of Luiz and Terry but could only fire wide with just Cech to beat. From a corner Drogba then tested the strength of the woodwork again as his left-foot shot on the turn rattled the bar. The second half was a frantic affair with both teams going all out to win, but unfortunately from a Chelsea perspective they couldn’t find that elusive second goal. Substitute Fernando Torres showed glimpses of brilliance but was met by a red brick wall on more than one occasion.
The final chance of this neutral-friendly encounter fell to Ricardo Fuller in the second minute of stoppage time but he inexplicably headed wide from barely three yards out having escaped the attention of Chelsea’s defence. This was certainly a welcome let-off. On another day it might have finished 4-1 to Stoke but Chelsea themselves could have run out comfortable winners if they had been more clinical in the final third; as it was, a draw was a fair reflection of an even encounter. The damaging withdrawal of Ramires on the hour affected Chelsea’s performance defensively and offensively from that moment on and we must hope Ancelotti makes better use of his substitutes for Wednesday’s first leg with United, a game which will surely be much tighter than this gung-ho affair.