Friday 20 October 2017

Nothing lucky about No 13 as Chelsea have all the answers

Chelsea 4 Stoke City 2

Diego Costa kicks the corner flag in celebration after scoring Chelsea’s fourth goal at Stamford Bridge yesterday. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Diego Costa kicks the corner flag in celebration after scoring Chelsea’s fourth goal at Stamford Bridge yesterday. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Miguel Delaney

Out of the chaos, a clear run continues. Chelsea equalled the English record for most successive league wins in a single season with 13 - this victory over Stoke City matching Arsenal's record from 2002.

If they win at Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday, they will have broken that single-season record. The very ominous thing for everyone else, though, is that this team doesn't look like breaking any time soon. They still don't look like they have a true equal in this title race, and start 2017 well clear of the field.

It was also what was all the more encouraging about this victory. Stoke pushed them harder than almost anyone else has done, giving them more to work on and think about than almost anyone else. One figure from the game sums that up. Chelsea conceded as many goals in this match - and in one manic 18-minute spell - as they had done in all 12 previous games in this extraordinary run.

The most significant thing about that was not even how Chelsea kept coming back with such character, since we've seen that before against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. It was how they kept going despite twice having their game-plan disrupted.

One big caveat always added to their current winning run is that Chelsea have got into a groove of just getting ahead and then seeing games out, as if they need everything falling to their tactical plan, that itself requires the defence to stay strong and one of Eden Hazard and Diego Costa to score decisive goals.

The Spanish international eventually struck the last goal of the game here but, since that was when it was already 3-2, none of that actually happened here. Chelsea adjusted to circumstances and still won so sensationally.

Stoke City's Joe Allen in action with Chelsea's Nemanja Matic. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters
Stoke City's Joe Allen in action with Chelsea's Nemanja Matic. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters

That was what Antonio Conte was most enthusiastic about after the win.

"I am pleased because my players showed me they can adapt to the different ways of playing in this league," the beaming Italian said.

Mark Hughes thereby becomes the latest manager to try and come up with something different to halt Chelsea's run and still fail, but he came much closer to doing so than most, despite the eventual two-goal defeat.

By going to the three at the back that they have themselves used on a few occasions this season, Stoke mirrored Chelsea and initially gave them little space to move in. It was the away side that were actually the better team at the start, suggesting how they eventually might hurt Conte's system from out wide and in the air with Peter Crouch, until Gary Cahill capped Chelsea's first good spell with a precise header from a corner to make it 1-0.

Chelsea's Diego Costa shoots at goal. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Chelsea's Diego Costa shoots at goal. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

In usual circumstances, that would have been enough, but this was to be an entertaining, unusual game. The real chaos started just a minute into the second half. Charlie Adam lofted a free-kick, Crouch exposed a vulnerability in Chelsea by using his rare height, and Bruno Martins Indi bundled the knock-down past Thibaut Courtois while under pressure.

Chelsea responded with what was their most impressive spell of the match, Willian ending nine minutes of pinball in the Stoke box by opportunistically powering the ball by Lee Grant via a deflection.

For all the assurance that strike should have restored, though, there was still a rare laxness and complacency in Conte's backline as Stoke came forward again just minutes later. Crouch took the ball down beautifully on the edge of the box, before Bojan Krkic moved it on with similar elegance, and the deftness of those was only matched by the clumsiness of Kante and Cahill as both defenders just fell over in the face of such swiftness. Crouch was then left to equalise from close range, but Stoke were not left to reflect on their equaliser for too long.

Within 60 seconds, Chelsea were back in the lead through Willian. That was what it came down to. With Chelsea's backline for once so porous, and their main attackers not firing, Willian stepped up. Cesc Fabregas slipped him through, and the Brazilian hammered it home.

What was also so conspicuous about the goal was how often Chelsea were trying that type of Fabregas pass, always on outside the outside centre-half. It was as if they had realised how to use Stoke's own three-at-the-back against them. They'd found the space. They'd again found the win, as the devastating Costa embarrassed Martins Indi to make sure of the points on 85 minutes.

The chaos had ended. There was only the clarity of victory again, and - right now, at least - the identity of the 2017 champions looks even clearer.

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