It’s never easy against Stoke City. Whatever game they play, be it long punts to Peter Crouch or, as Roberto Mancini described it, “basketball”, they prove to be stern opposition.
The side that held Manchester City last week came to west London hoping for another scalp, but this time, the blue side were the victors, thanks to a first goal for Ashley Cole since the final day of the 2009/2010 season.
Stoke City had managed to keep the European Champions at bay, and managed successfully for 84 minutes. They will have every right to feel hard done by, maintaining an equal share of the possession and proudly boasting 13 shots in the game.
But it was Chelsea’s 17th shot that was ultimately the deciding goal. Arguably England’s best left-back showed his composure to dink over the onrushing Begovic, after a beautifully engineered move by Mata presented the 31-year-old with the opportunity.
But it was not all Chelsea. Indeed, Stoke had their chances and had more than enough opportunities to take something away. But Chelsea were methodical, eloquent and open with their play.
Roberto Di Matteo recognised the tough schedule in store this month by resting John Terry and Frank Lampard. Had that not paid off, questions would have been asked of his AVB-style self-capitulation.
But though the older legs were rested on the bench, there was more than enough grit to see Chelsea through.
Captain Cech proved to be the brick wall once again, with Gary Cahill and David Luiz repeating their Munich-solid partnership. Mikel retained his place after his mid-week mistake, with Ramires moved in. Once again, the trio of Hazard-Oscar-Mata made rival fans envious.
But for all the creativity injected into the side, it needs a reliable spearhead. Torres had many chances to silence his doubters, but chance after chance went begging.
A promising counter-attack drew nothing, nor did an early corner. On 25 minutes though, he had his real opportunity. Mata looped the ball over and if Torres’ first touch was good, his second was non-existent. Had he got some contact, it was a certain goal, with Mata’s pass beating Stoke’s opposite trap.
But as Roberto Di Matteo will insist, the burden of scoring should not wholly be put on his talisman striker. One of those who can chip in with a few is Oscar, who tried to follow on from his wonderful brace on Wednesday, but failed to make full use of a Mikel pass.
Stoke’s set-pieces were causing Chelsea problems, with Walters nearly heading the visitors ahead, but for the crossbar.
Chelsea recharged their batteries at the interval and once again were not given a spot-kick decision. Contact was there but not enough for Michael Oliver to give the spot-kick; in fact, he felt it was appropriate to add insult by booking Oscar.
Juan Mata, fresh from his week-long break, continued to pull the strings for Chelsea, and some quick passes fooled Stoke, but no end product came about.
Victor Moses installed pace and trickery on the right-wing after a quiet day at the office for Eden Hazard, and panic was evident by Di Matteo’s decision to bring on Lampard.
The fans wanted the three points, and the vice-captain played a part in Cole’s goal, finding Moses on the right. The Nigerian international, in turn, found Ivanovic, whose cross eventually led to the game’s only goal.