The run of comeback wins has ended. This time it was our opponents exceptional finishing that claimed the points from an enthralling contest.
As expected, Chelsea controlled the opening stages. Hazard, so impressive against Sunderland, was linking up with Mata and Schurrle at ease. Much of Stoke’s opening half hour was spent trying to cope with the movement of the creative midfield that were looking to provide for the once against lacklustre Fernando Torres. I felt, just like Mourinho, that Chelsea should have gone into the break with more than a single goal lead. The goal itself was an individual piece of brilliance from a player that has been on the fringes of the starting eleven. Schurrle weaved between a couple of defenders on the edge of the box and struck across Begovic into the far corner. It was a deserved advantage that meant Stoke had to break out a little from the deep defensive line that was previously keeping Chelsea at bay.
Chances for the second came and went as Chelsea dictated the play but the final ball began to elude the likes of Ivanovic when in wide areas. At this stage, Stoke seemed to realise that the away side needed to cut in to create anything against defenders of such aerial prowess. There seemed to be a few key moments in the game, the first of which was the injury to Adam and subsequent introduction of Stephen Ireland. It was one of the substitutions that Stoke used to make a significant impact. Ireland, considerably more mobile than Adam, offered the home side something different once the game eventually became stretched. The contest was far from open as the half drew to a close but Stoke had created their first couple of chances in the match. Walters delivered a useful cross that Ireland failed to connect with. Shortly after, Chelsea somehow made a mess with the marking at the simplest of corners and Peter Crouch scrambled the ball over the line. Crouch’s goal meant that all four of Chelsea’s last conceded goals had come from set pieces.
The Potters were a different proposition after the break. Those that went missing when Chelsea ran the show saw their influence grow. Walters overpowered Azpilicueta on the wing and the retreating backline could do little about a fine, curling left footed finish from Ireland that dropped inside Cech’s right hand post. With their tails up, the game, as it did at the Stadium of Light, became stretched and Chelsea’s early controlling tempo had gone out of the window. There were chances and set pieces a-plenty and the fantastic Schurrle grabbed his second with a glorious half volley that Crouch cleared from a Mata free-kick. The ebb and flowed was reminiscent of a basketball match as Schurrle was agonisingly close to claiming a deserved hat-trick from a rasping effort that rattled the crossbar. With N’Zonzi’s fine second half, Hughes added the robust Palacios into the mix and introduced Assaidi for the previously carded Walters. It was beautifully poised and having earlier subbed Ba for Torres, Mourinho went for it with Lampard and Eto’o for Mikel and Schurrle. Fittingly, in the closing stages Lampard won the ball, Chelsea drove forward with Eto’o in the middle. The Cameroonian had numbers advancing left and right but chose to go alone and lost possession. Stoke countered with Ireland. He teed up the explosive Aissidi who unleashed an effort suitable to win any contest.