CHELSEA boss Jose Mourinho was full of praise for John Terry after the skipper’s early goal helped the Blues secure a 2-0 win at Stoke and the Barclays Premier League Christmas number one spot.
Terry headed past Asmir Begovic in the second minute from a corner delivered by Cesc Fabregas, who later wrapped up the victory by netting himself with a scuffed 78th-minute effort.
And Mourinho feels his 34-year-old captain - a centre-back now to have scored in 15 successive top-flight seasons - is playing as well as he was during his first spell as Chelsea manager.
“When he is on the pitch he is always a threat,” the Portuguese said of ex-England man Terry.
“But more important for me than the goal is the way he is playing this season, again.
UP AND DOWN
“When I came here (in the summer of 2013) he was a bit in trouble, his career was a bit up and down and he was not playing regularly for Chelsea.
“But he has played basically every game, and, for me, at the same level as from 2004-2007 when I was here,” he added.
“I think he adapts well to our training methodology - it’s a good way for a person with his body type to feel sharp and fast and in good condition. After that it’s happiness.
“When you’re happy and confident it’s easier in any job.
“He knows the way I trust him, and he feels confident and happy and he’s playing very well.”
The win means Chelsea will spend Christmas three points clear of second-placed Manchester City.
The Stoke fixture had looked a tricky prospect and got feisty at times, but overall the visitors controlled proceedings admirably.
They coped well when Stoke got physical, and although Mourinho suggested one rash-looking challenge on Blues playmaker Eden Hazard by Phil Bardsley - which earned the Potters defender a booking - merited a red card, he stressed that overall he had regarded the game as “aggressive” but “fair”.
Mourinho suggested Bardsley should have been sent off, but stressed he felt the match overall, while “aggressive”, had been fair.
He said: “From my position, it looked like a red card, but I don’t know.
“What I know is that if it was a bad tackle, it was the only one - the game was clean. It was aggressive, but good - the referee kept it under control and the players were fair.
“There were good fights, physicality, lots of duels, but I think the game was perfectly clean and correct.
“So if it was a red card, it was an isolated action.”
Mouriho felt Hazard, who set up Fabregas’ goal, had been “fantastic” and added: “There was one action that showed clearly for me what he (Hazard) is.
“Bardsley was injured and Eden, a few minutes after being tackled that way, is the one who puts the ball out. I wouldn’t do it to a guy who kicked me a few minutes before!” He said the victory meant “more than just the three points, because to win here, you need to show more than just your quality”.
The only real worry for Mourinho was Hazard having to be substituted late on due to what looked like an ankle injury following a tackle from Jonathan Walters, and it remains to be seen if the Belgium international will be fit to face West Ham on St Stephen’s Day.
Meanwhile, Stoke boss Mark Hughes, whose side are 13th, said of the hosts’ display: “It was the worst possible start for us, but credit to us - I thought we stuck at it and kept probing.
“It was difficult, because Chelsea were happy to protect the initial lead - they are quite able to take the sting out of games, which comes from experience.
“We had a decent period second half, but in the end they had a little bit of quality enabling them to get the second goal.”