Chelsea build up a nine-point lead at the top of the Premier League table with a hard-fought 4-2 victory against Stoke as the fans witness a six-goal New Year’s Eve thriller.
Cahill broke the deadlock for the hosts in the first half, but Martins Indi, and later Crouch when Willian gave Chelsea the advantage again, both pegged the hosts back. In the end, another Willian goal and a Costa strike settled the points in Chelsea’s favour.
It means the Blues have now won 13 Premier League matches on the bounce, one shy of Arsenal’s Premier League record set in 2001-02, and Conte will hope the winning form continues into the new year, despite tougher tests against Tottenham, Leicester and Liverpool to come in the first month of 2017 alone.
Chelsea did not beat Stoke in either of the two league games last season, and so to prolong the club-record winning streak — the Blues’ tally of 46 points after 18 games is the second highest in Premier League history, bettered only by the same club’s 49-point haul in 2005-06 — was not going to be a procession.
The dogged and determined side of Stoke was apparent from the off. Bar the odd half-chance, the opening became a tactical battle in the middle of the park. Kante dragged a shot wide before it was pinball in the Stoke penalty area, with Fabregas’ cross-field ball controlled beautifully by Costa, who got his shot away only for it to be acrobatically saved by Lee Grant, who also managed to hold onto the rebound.
Cahill then had a header saved from a Fabregas corner, and whilst this time it proved fruitless, the next combining of these two players proved much more fruitful.
A 90-yard Luiz ball to Costa was quite superb, with the Spaniard’s shot smothered by Grant, who then made a double-save to deny Hazard’s follow-up. The ensuing corner though brought about the goal, with Fabregas’ again finding Cahill and this time Cahill finding the back of the net.
The game could have been quite different had Charlie Adam done much better from a Stoke corner moments before the goal, heading wide from a Shaqiri corner with the goal gaping.
However it remained the one-goal advantage going into the break, but whatever Mark Hughes said at half-time clearly paid off as it was all square within a minute of the restart.
Adam fed a delightful upfield ball to Crouch, to towered above Cahill to square to Martins Indi to tap in with his left foot. The Blues have kept 10 clean sheets during their current club record 12-match winning streak, conceding just two goals and scoring 28, but there was to be no clean sheet here.
Morever, there appeared to be a very real chance the record was to be stopped unless Chelsea could get their noses in front again.
Fabregas again had another opportunity to swing the ball in from a corner, and after Moses slalomed his way through a multitude of Stoke players, the ball fell for Willian to side-foot, but the Brazilian hit the ball wide. It was a great opportunity.
Fret not as on the 57th minute Willian did score, and what a great team goal it was. Moses had not been having much luck on the right against Pieters, but after dummying his opponent and flooring the giant Dutchman, Moses squared to Hazard, who cushioned the ball to Willian to blast home.
It should have been three had Hazard done better at capitalising on a sloppy Johnson pass, or indeed later from a sloppy Crouch pass, but with Mark Hughes sending on Bojan and Imbula just after the hour mark, you sensed things were heating up a notch.
Costa failed to dig the ball out of his feet after great link-up play between him and Hazard, but one man who did manage to dig up a goal, his first in 22 appearances, was Peter Crouch, sidefooting home after Stoke broke down Chelsea’s left. It was a sloppy goal for Chelsea to concede against their former ball-boy, and once again Chelsea were pegged back.
But within 75 seconds, the hosts were again in front, and it was that man Willian again. The Blues raced forward and Fabregas, with his 100th Premier League assist, laid on a beautiful ball to Willian, who aimed high so Lee Grant could not reach it. It was raining goals at Stamford Bridge.
Costa should have made things comfortable after running the full length of the pitch to get onto the end of a Hazard tee-up, whilst Conte opted to shore up proceedings by sending on Ivanovic and Chalobah, and rightly so as two tough crosses kept Chelsea alert at the back, with Azpilicueta doing superbly to get a toe-poke on a Johnson cross before it looked set to reach Crouch and hit the back of the net.
In the end Costa had the final say, creating a goal from quite nothing. A throw-in found the Spaniard with his back to goal, but he bullied Martins Indi out of it and, from a tight angle, unleashed a quite superb shot that flew into the back of the net, and sent Conte flying into the crowd.
What are your thoughts from the game? Leave your thoughts in the Comments section below!
Man of the Match
WILLIAN: The man may have fallen down the pecking order under Antonio Conte with the rightful resurgence of Pedro, but the Brazilian does not half give himself a good shift when he does play. Time will tell if Conte wants to shift his line-up but with more performances like this, high energy, quick turns of pace and lethal finishes, not to mention excellent set-pieces, the Brazilian will be giving his manager headaches. Took his two goals superbly today and relieved the pressure on his side at exactly the right moments. 8/10
Conte was thrilled his side could adapt to a different type of winning: “My players showed they can adapt to the different kinds of game we face. They showed great commitment, work-rate and will to win. To win 13 games in a row in this league is very difficult. Stoke played very well. They hit long balls to Crouch and fought for the second ball.”
Hughes rued his side’s mistakes: “We got back level, but then conceded poor goals. We’ve made mistakes and good teams punish you. I thought we did really well, showing courage to get back in the game.”