During every title-winning campaign, there seems to be one seminal moment where the team allow themselves a moment to actually believe that the title is theirs. For Chelsea, Saturday’s 2-1 away victory over Stoke City seemed to be that moment.
Victory gave the Blues a 13-point lead over their title rivals, and with 10 matches to play, Tottenham and Manchester City’s hopes of a slip-up by title league leaders is beginning to look slim.
A trip to Stoke is precisely the type of match that might give Chelsea problems and could be a likely place to drop points, but Chelsea stood up to the challenge of an aggressive and physical Stoke side who surely believed that a point or more was likely.
Perhaps taking a page out of Manchester United’s play book from Monday night, Stoke manager Mark Hughes set out his side to frustrate his opponents with an aggressive press and a physical style that showed Chelsea that they were in for a fight.
With Eden Hazard absent due to injury, it was Diego Costa who was the brunt of Stoke’s aggression. For the first 10 minutes, a running battle with Bruno Martins Indi, leading to a yellow card for Costa after reacting angrily to being denied a free kick.
Stoke’s plan was working quite well, but on 13 minutes, it seemed like that plan might need chucked out. A trademark free kick by Willian from the left caught out goalkeeper Lee Grant, and Willian’s crept just inside the near post to give the visitor’s the 1-0 lead.
Stoke remained resilient and stuck to their task, and on the half-hour mark, the hosts thought the had the equaliser. A clever free kick down the line freed up Marko Arnautovic, whose cross was expertly cut out by N’Golo Kante.
From the ensuing free kick, Geoff Cameron’s free header was headed back in towards goal where Martins Indi was on hand to nod past a stranded Thibault Courtois. However, the whistle was blown and the goal was disallowed after Saido Berahino was penalised for a push on Cesar Azpilicueta.
That equaliser would come just minutes later when Jonathan Walters won a penalty after Gary Cahill clipped the heels of the striker as he tried to attack a free kick from the Stoke left. Walters picked himself up and thumped his penalty into the top corner to make the score 1-1.
Stoke continued to frustrate Costa, with the striker beginning to show some of the aggression and fight that was so evident last season. Manager Antonio Conte must have sensed Costa’s frustration boiling over, and midway through the first half sent Michy Batshuayi out to warm up, possibly as a reminder that Costa could be replaced.
It seemed to work, as a much calmer Diego Costa emerged for the second half, but Stoke continued with their game plan and it continued to frustrate the hosts.
With Stoke’s style of play appearing to take its toll on the hosts, Conte decided it was time to go for the win. Discarding the 3-4-3 that has worked so well, Cesc Fabregas was introduced as a number 10 in place of Victor Moses, and Chelsea reverted to something resembling a 4-2-3-1.
As Chelsea began to attack with more vigour, errors began to creep into Stoke’s game, and two errors from Erik Pieters would prove costly. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s pressing forced Pieters into an errant back pass and his failure to clear a corner left the ball sitting near the penalty spot for Cahill to smash home a late winner and send the travelling supporters into a frenzy and Conte to try and climb to the roof of the dugout.
After the final whistle, the victory was not lost on either the players or the manager, as Conte’s fist-pumping celebrations towards the away end signified the importance of the victory. As the renditions of “We’re going to win the league” flowed from the supporters, the body language of the players seemed to echo those sentiments. Everyone now believes.