Chelsea back out in front after Stoke win
Goals from John Terry and Cesc Fabregas enough to see off Potters at the Britannia
Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas celebrates scoring his sides second goal of the game against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Chelsea’s John Terry (2nd right) scores the opening goal past Stoke City’s Asmir Begovic at the Britannia Stadium. Photograph: Darren Staples / Reuters
The portents are promising for Chelsea and ominous for their rivals. This is the fourth time that Chelsea have enjoyed the view from the top of the Premier League come Christmas, and on each of the previous occasions they have gone on to win the title.
John Terry’s header after only 95 seconds followed by a second-half goal from Cesc Fabregas secured Chelsea’s place at the summit and restored their three-point advantage over Manchester City.
It was, in short, a much happier experience for Jose Mourinho than 12 months ago when his Chelsea side were beaten 3-2 here and the Portuguese departed bemoaning their failure to “kill the game”.
Fabregas, whose corner had set up Terry’s opener to take his tally of assists for the season to 12 - Thierry Henry holds the Premier League record for a single campaign with 20 - ensured there would be no slip-up this time round when his mishit shot found its way into the bottom corner.
Mourinho will no doubt view the result and performance as evidence of Chelsea’s ability to sustain a title challenge. Stoke beat Arsenal here a couple of weeks ago and were always going to be awkward opponents, but Chelsea matched the home team physically and were ruthless when it mattered.
Those anticipating a feisty contest were not disappointed. Diego Costa and Ryan Shawcross were quickly involved in a running feud - an argument waiting to happen if ever there was one - corners resembled a wrestling match and Phil Bardsley poured a gallon of petrol on the fire with a disgraceful challenge on Eden Hazard that prompted a furious reaction from Mourinho.
Marching down the touchline waving his arms in the air the Chelsea manager clearly felt that Neil Swarbrick should have brandished a red card and it was easy to sympathise with the Chelsea manager’s view. Bardsley was late and reckless as he clattered into the Belgian in the 19th minute and could count himself fortunate to escape with a booking. An angry exchange between Mark Hughes and Mourinho followed as both managers, jabbing their fingers and mouthing off at each other, got into the Christmas spirit.
If anything that flashpoint galvanised Stoke, who had gone behind inside two minutes and looked rather flat until the home supporters got worked up over Mourinho’s antics. Two home chances arrived in quick succession as Stoke responded to the volume being turned up inside the Britannia.
The first of those opportunities led Thibaut Courtois, restored to the starting lineup after a couple of weeks out with a groin injury, to turn Steven Nzonzi’s deflected shot behind. Two minutes later Bojan Krkic released Jonathan Walters in the Chelsea penalty area but the winger’s attempt to sidefoot the ball home was blocked by Gary Cahill.
By that stage Chelsea were already in front courtesy of a goal from a routine set-piece. Amid much jostling in the Stoke penalty area, Terry managed to get away from Geoff Cameron, his marker, and meet a Fabregas corner with a powerful close-range header that gave Asmir Begovic no chance.
Costa should have doubled Chelsea’s lead later in the first half. Nemanja Matic started the move by breaking up play deep inside the Chelsea half with a fine tackle on Cameron that left Stoke exposed. Breaking with alacrity, Matic released Hazard who shifted the ball onto Fabregas. A superb pass picked out Costa, who had timed his run to perfection and was played onside by Shawcross, but the Spaniard, with only Begovic to beat, dragged his low shot wide of the far upright.
Chelsea continued to look the more accomplished side, with Hazard showing some lovely touches. At one point early in the second half the Belgian turned Bardsley inside out, tormenting the Stoke right-back with his quick footwork before cutting the ball back for Fabregas on the corner of the six-yard box. Fabregas, who thought he should have had a penalty moments earlier only to be flagged offside, tried to flick the ball over Begovic but the contact was too thin and the Stoke goalkeeper saved easily.
Stoke, however, were still in the game and refusing to go quietly. Charlie Adam, on for the ineffective Cameron, came close to bringing parity in the 70th minute when his 20-yard left-footed drive from Walters’s square pass drifted inches wide of the post.
There was, though, no way back for Stoke when Fabregas struck moments later. Released by Hazard, the Spaniard took a heavy first touch and made a poor contact with his second but the ball bobbled beyond Begovic. Only the Stoke goalkeeper’s quick reflexes denied Costa a third.