If this was the first game of the “Two Amigos” era at Stamford Bridge it was not a bad start. This was post-Juan Mata Chelsea, unimaginable last year, but here, in an impressive deconstruction of Stoke City, making perfect sense.
The trio of Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard was meant to be the basis for a decade of Chelsea teams, and last year looked like it might well be. Mata seemed to be Rafael Benitez’s favourite, his subtle brush-strokes helping to save Chelsea’s season and win them the Europa League last May.
Few would have thought he might be sold in January, and to a rival. But Jose Mourinho has never been one for conventional wisdom and he decided that Oscar and Hazard would be the rocks on which he built his Chelsea team. The football he wants to play is punchy and explosive. Oscar and Hazard, as they showed again, are the perfect men for this. Mata, for all his delicacy and imagination, was not.
It was no surprise that Oscar and Hazard started on Sunday, even with the prospect of a Premier League game against West Ham United on Wednesday night before Manchester City away a week today. This was Oscar’s 24th start of the season and Hazard’s 26th – of outfield players only Ramires, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic have started more.
When Mourinho talks about his “boys”, these are the most important two, who represent him on the pitch twice a week. They provide imagination and technical excellence, while offering a relentless scurry and a burst of power Mata seemed to lack.
Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0: in pictures
Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0: in pictures
1/8 Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0
Chelsea's Frank Lampard evades the attentions of Stoke's Steven N'Zonzi.
2/8 Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0
Chelsea's new signing Nemanja Matic challenges Stephen Ireland for the ball.
3/8 Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0
Stephen Ireland lets fly with a driven effort during the FA Cup match at Stamford Bridge.
4/8 Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0
Oscar steps up to give Chelsea the lead with a glorious free kick.
5/8 Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0
Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic can only watch helplessly as Oscar's superb effort sails past him into the corner.
6/8 Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0
Chelsea's Eden Hazard goes to ground as Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross shields the ball.
7/8 Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0
Stoke's Erik Pieters battles for possession with Chelsea's Andre Schurrle.
8/8 Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0
Peter Crouch towers over Chelsea's Gary Cahill to win a header for Stoke.
Oscar was the matchwinner on Sunday, making it very clear from the start that this was a game he was in charge of. His eye for a pass is almost as good as Mata’s and he made early openings for Hazard and André Schürrle. They were not taken, so he got it done himself.
Standing over a free-kick 25 yards out, slightly to the right of centre, Oscar shaped as if to bend the ball into his nearer top corner, to Asmir Begovic’s left. The Stoke goalkeeper stepped that way but Oscar whipped it into the far corner, not very far away from Begovic but with so much bend and pace he had no chance of reversing his momentum.
That was brilliant and minutes later Oscar nearly added a similarly good second. Taking a brisk reverse pass from Hazard – each always knows where the other one is – he threw Marc Wilson off the scent with a stepover before driving a shot against the post.
Oscar was just as influential in the second half, setting up chances for Schürrle and Samuel Eto’o that should have been taken while nearly adding another of his own, an instinctive first-time clip which did not quite curl back in far enough.
Hazard was a menace throughout and, with better luck, could have set up two or three for his team-mates. In the first half incisive passes made chances for Eto’o, Oscar and Frank Lampard. In the second half he showed again his unique mix of acceleration, balance and control, burning past two tackles in the box before providing a cross which Ramires and Eto’o both somehow failed to convert.
One goal was enough to get Chelsea into the next round but the performance was better than that. This team is a work in progress but the plan is clear. Not everyone can be part of it, but those who are certainly deserve to be.
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