Defeat stokes fire which may banish Jose for good
Stoke City 1 Chelsea 0
Another day, another Chelsea defeat. The extraordinary has become ordinary and after each loss, which is still always a surprise and often undeserving, the plot becomes more complicated and the noises off become louder.
They were louder still at the Britannia Stadium last night because Jose Mourinho was not there. No member of Chelsea's management team spoke after the game and in the silence, the whispering became more pronounced.
People wondered where Mourinho was going to watch the game but it didn't really matter. In so many ways he has made his mark on this side and an absence for a couple of hours wasn't going to make a difference.
Some said he was in the Holiday Inn on the A500, others insisted he was in a hotel in Crewe, or in a suite at the Belfry. Nobody was quite sure. Mark Hughes said any team would miss a manager of Mourinho's quality but some say there are players at Chelsea who won't miss him when he's gone.
That might not happen yet. Marko Arnautovic's volley ensured that Stoke would get the win their committed display merited. But Chelsea were committed too and they couldn't catch a break with Pedro hitting the post and Stoke's goalkeeper Jack Butland making some critical saves.
One of those was from Diego Costa, who ended the night dragged into controversy when a steward reported to the referee that Chelsea's centre-forward had stamped on his toe. Chelsea dismissed the story as "nonsense" but losing Costa to suspension would be no hardship right now.
The indications are that Mourinho will not be sacked yet but they may remain the indications right up to the moment when he is dismissed.
There is something of the Haughey era about Mourinho's Chelsea. Journalists sit in the press box and discuss who among his players is with him and who is against him, who is plotting and who is mutinous.
When he was banned from the stadium for a Champions League game against Bayern Munich ten years ago, Mourinho was smuggled into the ground in a laundry basket. If he had emerged from a laundry bag yesterday, one of his players might have been tempted to tip off the authorities.
The Chelsea team coach pulled up before the game with no sign of Mourinho. A people carrier parked beside the coach was identified as a possible getaway vehicle, in part because it had its engine running. The kind of car Mourinho would use is unlikely to have problems getting started but that didn't really matter. What mattered was the intrigue. A Stoke fan announced Mourinho was watching the game in a nearby hotel and followed up his breaking news with an insistence that Chelsea had found a way round the ban and Jose would be in the ground.
All of it was a distraction from the real problems, even if many of the problems begin and end with Jose Mourinho. Chelsea are three points above the relegation zone and that is all you need to know about what has happened this season.
Like the alcoholic who finds his drinking moves from fun to fun and consequences to just consequences, Mourinho's management style tends to follow a similar arc. He conquers, then he divides and conquers and finally he simply divides.
He may be hovering somewhere between stage two and three at the moment. Chelsea began last night's game with an appetite for the battle which lay ahead. In Costa they had a player who wanted nothing but the battle. He had a swipe at Ryan Shawcross early on but he did little but tussle all night, except for one moment when he linked with Pedro and brought a good save from Butland.
Jon Walters signed a new two-year contract at Stoke before kick off and he set the tone for Stoke with his aggressive running. The game crackled with intensity. Pedro booted Erik Pieters in the head early on and the blood dripping from his face seemed to be a statement of what was required.
Neither side hesitated. Eden Hazard looked to have recovered some of his purpose but Stoke had plenty too. Xherdan Shaqiri on the right was a menacing sprite, capable of anything on the ball it seemed and capable always of making life miserable for Chelsea's defenders, left-back Baba Rahman in particular.
Asmir Begovic saved well from Glen Johnson and Butland tipped over a dipping Ramires shot from the edge of the box. Walters then headed over after Shaqiri had again bamboozled Baba Rahman.
The second half began with a restating of the intensity but Chelsea had lost some vigour in attack. The crowd were angry as the referee penalised Stoke but then they broke with real intent. Shaqiri slid a beautiful ball forward for Johnson who crossed towards Walters. He couldn't finish but the ball bounced up and looped over to Arnautovic who volleyed in.
While the Chelsea bench lacked a little of the mania that Mourinho currently brings, they still found time for ironic applause when decisions went against them. As they chased the game, Oscar and Cesc Fabregas came on and finally Loic Remy but a goal wouldn't come.
Hazard, moved to the periphery on the left, looked like he'd equalised with a shot but it was deflected wide.
If Chelsea needed a grievance, they had one in the final five minutes when Costa played Remy in. As he went round the keeper, Butland charged out. Remy hurdled the challenge but ultimately lost his balance. Remy was penalised for his honesty in trying to stay on his feet but it could have been a penalty.
John Terry ended the game upfront. When they needed a goal in the good times, Mourinho would sometimes employ this tactic and Chelsea would find a way. Now it seemed like a sign of decay, a last desperate act for a manager who is running out of road. Wherever he is.
Sunday Indo Sport