Sunday 25 March 2018

Stoke slow Chelsea charge

Chelsea 1 Stoke City 1

Chelsea's John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic out jump Stoke's Xherdan Shaqiri. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
Chelsea's John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic out jump Stoke's Xherdan Shaqiri. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
Chelsea's Nemanja Matic and Stoke's Xherdan Shaqiri in action. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images
Chelsea's Nemanja Matic holds off Stoke's Giannelli Imbula. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Ben Findon

Just when Chelsea seemed poised for a late run at fourth place in the Premier League, and guaranteed Champions League opportunities next season, along came Stoke City to cast a cloud over the Londoners' prospects.

Chelsea host Paris Saint-Germain in a Champions League last-16 clash on Wednesday night, and this was not the kind of warm-up Stamford Bridge patrons had in mind. They looked well set when Bertrand Traore put them ahead as the interval approached, but Stoke dominated the second half and deservedly levelled late on through Mame Diouf.

A low-key first half progressed with few moments of inspiration until Traore's intervention six minutes before the interval. Eden Hazard twinkled intermittently. After 17 minutes, he slipped through three Stoke challenges to provide Oscar with a shooting opportunity that was blocked. The Brazilian then tested Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland with a low shot.

Chelsea were fortunate midway through the first half, when Diouf stretched to apply a finishing touch to Ibrahim Afellay's cross, but could not make a firm enough connection. With one eye on Wednesday's game, Hiddink rested and rotated. Cesc Fabregas started on the bench, Diego Costa was given the afternoon off.

John Terry, fighting off a hamstring injury, was also an absentee, while Hazard was withdrawn just past the hour mark. Chelsea moved in front in the 39th minute with a goal conjured from out of nothing. Nemanja Matic played a clearance back towards the visitors' goal, but there appeared little danger as Traore gathered possession in front of a Stoke screen of players. Yet the striker adroitly stepped around Glenn Whelan before unleashing a 20-yarder that rose beyond the reach of Butland.

Stoke pressed forward, although substitute Ruben Loftus-Cheek could have eased Chelsea's nerves, but saw Butland block his effort. The visitors deserved their equaliser five minutes from the end. Xherdan Shaqiri's cross was punched only half clear by Thibaut Courtois and Diouf was able to head back into an unguarded Chelsea net.

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