Requiring a three-goal victory to push Arsenal out of the top four, Chelsea should have managed it, given that their opponents had Ricardo Fuller sent off for a blatant stamp after only 25 minutes. Instead, Stoke held on – literally at times,as most set-pieces turned into wrestling matches in the penalty area – until three-quarters of the way through a poor game, when Didier Drogba scored his 100th Premier League goal.
Roberto Di Matteo was hardly controversial in bringing the Ivorian back into the side in place of Fernando Torres, who left the dug-out only for a couple of warm-up jogs before sitting disconsolately down again. So the Spaniard remains 23 minutes short of playing 24 hours without a goal.
Andre Villas-Boas, drummed out as manager after defeat by West Bromwich Albion last Saturday, had played his first Premier League game in the hostile environment of Stoke's Britannia Ground and was happy enough to come out of the experience with a point. Di Matteo knew all about the threat: Stoke were the bogey team to the previous club he had managed, West Bromwich. But Stoke had not managed to win at Stamford Bridge since 1974 and were never close yesterday, not demanding a save of Petr Cech either before or after Fuller's dismissal.
Afterwards, Di Matteo was able to promise "better times will come". He felt that the sending-off made little difference to Stoke's approach, claiming: "They were still going to defend deep and have men behind the ball. Sometimes you have to win a little bit scrappy, and after the events of last week it was important just to get the win."
Following a winning start in the FA Cup at Birmingham – a home game against Leicester next Sunday offers every chance of a Wembley semi-final – Di Matteo made four changes, surprisingly leaving out Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge and just as unexpectedly opting for a 4-4-2 formation. It allowed John Obi Mikel more freedom to venture forward while Raul Meireles covered him, until he made way for Sturridge.
Stoke's manager, Tony Pulis, also had a surprise or two up his sleeve, leaving out leading scorer Peter Crouch ahead of the FA Cup tie at Liverpool, and in the absence of his wide men Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant, picking three similar strikers in Kenwyne Jones, Fuller and Jonathan Walters.
Three became two with little more than a quarter of the game played when Branislav Ivanovic cleared the ball and found Fuller stamping on the inside of his thigh. Fortunately for Chelsea and for justice, the officials saw it. Pulis said afterwards: "It's a ridiculous reaction from Ric. He has been at this football club for six years now or whatever and he's been a fantastic player for the club. But he is prone to react sometimes like that and – like I say – it's unacceptable."
Di Matteo reacted decisively by sending on the more adventurous Mata for Meireles, but although Chelsea struck the crossbar twice before half-time they could not break through. John Terry, returning only two-and-a- half weeks after an ankle operation, thumped a header into the ground and up against the frame of the goal. Less than 10 minutes later Robert Huth, back on his old stamping ground, headed weakly out to Ivanovic, who thrashed a shot past Asmir Begovic but against the bar.
Stoke were hardly in the game as an attacking force, their most promising move for a long time coming when Walters, on a break down the right, accidentally clipped Terry, who fell over, leaving Gary Cahill to bring off a brave block before Walters hit the rebound wide.
Free-kicks and corners appeared to offer the visitors their best chance with 10 men, Ryan Shotton hurling his throws almost as fast and far as the absent Rory Delap. Bringing on Matthew Upson and moving Huth to left-back gave them even greater aerial strength at both ends, though David Luiz, who replaced Ivanovic at half-time, might have been expected to outrun the former Chelsea man down the flank.
The same applied to Sturridge, brought on in a third positive substitution to replace Mikel, although the newcomer played no part in the goal that followed within a minute. Ashley Cole, well advanced, fed Mata, who turned and played in Drogba for a nifty piece of footwork in taking the ball past his marker and round Begovic to score.
If the crowd relaxed a little, their team could not afford to under the late barrage from Stoke, whose best effort – almost a parody of long-ball football – was a shot from inside the centre circle by Andy Wilkinson that had Cech looking momentarily concerned before it drifted wide of a post.
So Di Matteo was able to celebrate a first victory at this level for a year. He would love another when Napoli arrive on Wednesday, but on that occasion the margin – by a minimum of two goals – really will matter.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cech; Ivanovic (David Luiz, h-t), Cahill, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Meireles (Mata, 38), Mikel (Sturridge, 67), Lampard; Drogba, Kalou.
Stoke (4-3-3): Begovic; Wilkinson, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson (Upson, 51); Shotton, Whitehead, Diao (Palacios, 51); Jones (Jerome, 60), Walters, Fuller.
Referee Andre Marriner.
Man of the match Mata (Chelsea).
Match rating 6/10.
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