They say any port in a storm will do and so it is proving for Chelsea.
Away from the toxic atmosphere in the stands at Stamford Bridge, the Londoners are on quite a roll. This was Chelsea’s sixth successive away victory under Rafael Benitez and it was undoubtedly their most impressive as they tore apart a Stoke City team who had not lost at home since last February.
Admittedly this Potteries outpost does not intimidate Chelsea as it does other clubs – the Londoners are unbeaten here since 1975 – but three days after their League Cup semi-final home loss to Swansea City, Chelsea showed that their crises are strictly relative, no matter how well-publicised.
Yes, they may have lost two successive home games, yes, fans may be unhappy about Benitez being there and about Frank Lampard’s approaching departure, but as transitional seasons go, things really could be worse as they moved up to third place, four points behind Manchester City. As Benitez noted afterwards: “Every week we can’t be thinking ‘crisis, not crisis’. We are scoring more goals than the team was scoring in the past, we are conceding half the goals.”
While Chelsea’s good day was capped by John Terry’s return from injury with an 11-minute substitute cameo, this really was the worst of days for Jon Walters, the Stoke forward who headed two own-goals and blazed over a late penalty to earn ironic “man of the match” chants from the away end. Chelsea added to Walters’ unwanted double with a Lampard penalty and Eden Hazard wonder goal to inflict Stoke’s heaviest top-flight defeat at the Britannia.
Chelsea have hit 20 goals in this sequence of six away victories and explaining the contrast between this and the home blanks against QPR and Swansea, Benitez noted how: “You play away and they come [at] you, you have more space behind and the movement of your players can kill them.”
Chelsea came into the game showing some significant changes after that League Cup semi-final loss. Petr Cech was back in goal and there were starting roles for Lampard and Ryan Bertrand in midfield and up front for Demba Ba, the latter taking the place, predictably, of Fernando Torres.
With Gary Cahill absent for the birth of his boy, David Luiz joined Branislav Ivanovic in the heart of Chelsea’s defence and they had an early let-off after seven minutes when Andy Wilkinson’s deflected shot ran to Kenwyne Jones, but he steered his shot a whisker wide.
That was as close as Stoke would come, and Chelsea nearly broke through in the 25th minute after one passage of prolonged possession ended with Hazard and Ba combining to play in Lampard but Asmir Begovic flicked out a boot to divert the midfielder’s first-time shot. Lampard then created a chance for Ba with a high ball behind Robert Huth that the striker latched on to. Begovic was equal to the shot, however, and Wilkinson’s superb tackle stopped Ramires turning in the loose ball.
Stoke’s defending was less impressive in first-half stoppage time as Walters dived in ahead of Juan Mata to head Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross into his own net. It was a goal with its origin in Lampard’s willingness to chase a lost cause, the midfielder closing down Geoff Cameron to win a throw. From Mata’s resulting cross, neither Wilkinson nor Etherington could clear and Hazard set up Azpilicueta to cross.
The second half began with Ashley Cole testing Begovic with a near-post drive, but Stoke came again with Steven Nzonzi’s powerful strike drawing a fingertip save from Cech. Etherington then went down in the box under a challenge by Azpilicueta but Sian Massey’s raised flag indicated that the winger had been offside.
The contest was over in the 62nd minute with Walters’ second own goal, the forward nodding in Mata’s corner under pressure from Lampard. “The second goal kills us,” said Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager.
Two minutes later, it was three as Lampard struck from the spot. It looked a harsh decision by Andre Marriner as although Mata had Huth behind him and Ryan Shawcross in front of him neither man seemed to make much contact. “Robert has his hand on his shoulder but Mata’s legs collapse,” complained Pulis. Regardless, Lampard lashed in goal 194 of his Chelsea career, eight behind Bobby Tambling’s all-time record.
Hazard made it four, collecting the ball some 30 metres out, turned into space and unleashed a superb angled shot which flew wide of Begovic’s right hand and left the net bulging.
Stoke (4-5-1): Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilkinson; Walters, Whelan, Adam (Whitehead, 79), Nzonzi, Etherington (Kightly, 86); Jones (Jerome, 78).
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Azpilicueta (Ferreira, 83), Ivanovic, Luiz, Cole; Lampard, Ramires; Hazard, Mata (Terry, 79), Bertrand; Ba Mani. Dieke; Asante, Scott; Carney, Little.
Referee: Andre Marriner.
Man of the match: Lampard (Chelsea)
Match rating: 7/10
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