Cahill fires Chelsea another step closer to the finishing line
Stoke City 1 Chelsea 2
Antonio Conte was so consumed with the joy of Gary Cahill's winner that he grasped the lip of the dugout and heaved himself up until his chin was above the roof, celebrating the kind of victory that tells a manager his team have got what it takes to win a Premier League title.
There were minutes to spare when Cahill lashed in a ball loose in the Stoke City area, and Conte's reaction was exactly what you would expect of a highly excitable Italian who has just seen his team take a major step towards the title. They had to fight the home side every inch of the way but these are the sort of victories - hard-won, and heartbreaking for the opposition - that make a successful season.
For a short time there was a faint ray of light briefly glimpsed by the chasing two of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City but it was extinguished with that winning goal. Chelsea are now 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League table and all the questions will be asked of their pursuers when they come to play today.
The leaders won without Eden Hazard, left behind in London having suffered a calf injury in training, and they did so against a Stoke team who had been unbeaten in their previous eight home league games. It was a Stoke side who tried to get under the skin of Chelsea - Diego Costa in particular - and the game ended with one of those booked for kicking the striker, Phil Bardsley, dismissed in injury-time for a second yellow card.
Cahill had conceded the penalty from which Jonathan Walters scored a first-half equaliser, and there were times when it looked like Stoke might hang on.
With around 20 minutes of the game left, Conte even abandoned the 3-4-3 formation which has taken English football by storm this season and switched to 4-2-3-1, with Cesc Fabregas off the bench to be the playmaker. It was Fabregas who Bardsley took down to earn his second booking of the game, his first having come for a foul on Costa before the break. The Brazilian had just about kept a lid on it in what was an emotional first half for him, during which he was engaged in a running battle with a variety of Stoke defenders and midfielders.
"People are trying to say we targeted him," Mark Hughes said later, "absolutely not. I played in that position many, many years and when I look at his qualities as a striker he is outstanding. But he has elements of his play you don't need. It's not necessary. . . he went over too easily on numerous occasions and he stays down."
Conte was more philosophical about the approach taken by Stoke. "It is not easy to answer. The rule of this kind of game is that it is normal to make a player angry and to get him to react and to commit another foul. That's normal. The great news is that Diego is showing himself to be a great player in this way. I have been pleased with him, and his behaviour."
Costa could not always prevent himself from reacting, and when he was booked for diving in the 16th minute, Stoke smelled an opportunity. Although Costa was not blameless, it was him battling alone against a number of opponents who were taking turns to try to bring him to the boil. The first Chelsea goal came from a terrible mistake by goalkeeper Lee Grant, who flapped at a free-kick from Willian that should have been simple to deal with and pushed it into his own net.
Chelsea had kept Stoke at arm's length for much of the first half but let them back in for the last 10 minutes. Anthony Taylor only disallowed a Bruno Martins Indi headed goal after a long consultation with his assistant who seemed to say that Saido Berahino had pushed Cesar Azpilicueta.
Hughes did not agree with that decision and he also claimed that Cahill should have been sent off for shoving Jonathan Walters for the penalty. Ireland star Walters lifted a high shot past Thibaut Courtois and Stoke were back in it.
A deflected Willian free-kick after the hour beat Grant and struck the bar but Chelsea were struggling to find a way through. With 20 minutes left, Conte changed his formation. "When you want all three points and not one, you have to try to change," he said. "Sometimes I prefer to take a risk."
It was another substitute, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who forced Pieters to give away a corner from which the winner came. David Luiz headed the corner goalwards and Pieters just prodded the ball towards Cahill to score. There might have been more goals for Chelsea as Stoke finally collapsed but the job was already done.