Friday 23 February 2018

Chelsea switch focus to Europe as title defence grinds to a halt

Stoke City 1 Chelsea 1

Chelsea went down to an early goal, recovered, and sent on all their available attackers in search of the three points to keep their title hopes alive.

There the similarity with Manchester United ended, however, and after accepting his side could not afford to drop any more points and retain a realistic chance of overhauling the leaders Carlo Ancelotti will now be able to concentrate on the Champions League.

For their part, Stoke did not resemble West Ham either. They moved just a point nearer safety, after creating any number of chances to win a riotously entertaining contest, but most importantly they never looked like collapsing to defeat. They will be in the Premier League next season, and no one who witnessed this pulsating, eventful, ridiculously open game will have any complaints about that.

"It was always going to be difficult, but the gap is now even wider," Ancelotti said. "Clearly, the Champions League is now our best hope of success because we are level with the other teams there, we don't have ground to make up. We can't be too disappointed, everybody knows to play here is not easy and both teams had opportunities."

After taking his first Premier League point off Chelsea, Tony Pulis was in equally magnanimous mood. "We could have won it at the end, but we shouldn't get blase," the Stoke manager said. "Chelsea deserve a lot of credit. They have a massive Champions League game coming up in a few days and their attitude was first class."

Stoke got off to an ideal start with a goal after just eight minutes. An impressive opener it was too, with Jonathan Walters beating David Luiz with surprising ease on halfway, then running into the space vacated by Jose Bosingwa straying too far upfield on a Chelsea attack. Michael Essien made a valiant attempt to track back, only for Walters to calmly check round him then rifle a confident right-foot shot beyond Petr Cech.

The damage could have been worse for Chelsea when Kenwyne Jones got past John Terry with similar ease on the right, though the striker was unable to summon the same composure as Walters.

Chelsea should have levelled when a long shot from Frank Lampard was only picked up late by Asmir Begovic, Nicolas Anelka being unable to react quite quickly enough when the goalkeeper dropped the ball right at his feet.

No matter, Chelsea's equaliser soon arrived. Didier Drogba was still being jeered after putting a volley high into the Boothen End when suddenly he struck with elegant athleticism, getting across Danny Higginbotham to reach Anelka's cross and flick a header past Begovic.

Chelsea stepped up the pace at the start of the second half, with Drogba hitting the post and another longe-range Lampard effort being beaten out by Begovic, though they were indebted to their own goalkeeper for preventing Jermaine Pennant scoring at the other end. Cech produced a good save with his feet.

Fernando Torres came on for the last half-hour and almost scored with his first touch after one of his trademark turns to find space in the box. Then he took a knock and spent the next 10 minutes a spectator as Stoke twice rattled Cech's bar on consecutive attacks. First it was Marc Wilson with a rising drive from a tapped free-kick, then Robert Huth with a header from a corner.

Jones, Walters and Pennant all had chances for the home side before Chelsea came back and Drogba hit the woodwork for the second time, striking Begovic's bar with a shot on the turn.

No one could fault the entertainment, though time was running out on Stoke's hopes of reaching 40 points and Chelsea's desire to stay in touch with the leaders. There was one heavy-legged breakaway by Torres when he tried in vain to play in Lampard, and Ricardo Fuller missed the best chance of all with a point-blank header in stoppage time, yet there was little to argue about at the end. A draw was fair.

"Both teams could have won, so the result was right for the game," Ancelotti said. "We just aren't so happy about it."


Captain fantastic, Ryan Shawcross guided his side through yesterday's battle at the Britannia, and showed strong leadership in uniting the Stoke rearguard.

Next three games

Chelsea: v Wigan (h) Apr 9; v West Bromwich Albion (a) Apr 16; v Birmingham (h) Apr 20

Stoke: v Tottenham Hotspur (a) Apr 9; v Aston Villa (a) Apr 23; v Wolverhampton Wanderers (h) Apr 26

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