We look ahead to Chelsea’s next assignment: a tough trip to the Potteries on Saturday.
The Blues and Mark Hughes’ side put on a spectacle at Stamford Bridge on New Year’s Eve – Chelsea ending up the victors in an entertaining 4-2 win thanks to a Willian brace. Despite Peter Crouch’s equaliser, a late surge saw Chelsea home and opened up a six-point lead at to the top of the table at the half-way stage.
Fast forward a couple of months and that advantage is now ten points. A number of top bets would identify the Blues as red-hot favourites to lift the Premier League crown in May. Looking to add to the impressive 17 points the Blues have picked up in their past seven games, Antonio Conte takes his team to the Midlands who have been the epitome of inconsistency in recent months.
The Potters have picked up creditable draws against Everton and both Manchester clubs, yet been spanked by Tottenham and beaten by West Brom. They sit in 9th position – matching last year’s finish – though Southampton, in 10th, have two games in hand. Nevertheless, Stoke remain the same troublesome, stubborn, and downright irritating team since they made their Premier League bow in 2008.
As combative as ever, only three sides outside of the top seven have better defensive records than Stoke. They have kept two consecutive clean sheets. Furthermore, Stoke also have some form against the Blues, having twice beaten Chelsea at the bet365 Stadium last season in league and cup.
For Conte’s men, the confidence must be flowing at the moment. They top the Premier League by a massive margin, boasting the best defence and second-best attack in the division. With 11 games remaining, they need only 24 points to be assured of title glory.
They also have momentum in the FA Cup, having knocked out holders Manchester United on Monday night. In a 1-0 victory, the Blues made Mourinho’s men look ordinary. The scoreline flattered the former Chelsea manager, whose memory is fast being replaced by a sensational follow-up act.
Conte has worked wonders with what is effectively the same squad that was 16th when Mourinho was given his marching orders 15 months ago. A further kick in the teeth for Mourinho is that a player he never even gave a chance to – Victor Moses – and another he deemed surplus to requirements – David Luiz – have arguably been the Blues’ best players this season.
Stoke look set to welcome back Xherdan Shaqiri and Glen Johnson from recent injury woes, and though Mame Biram Diouf is only a slight doubt, Jack Butland, and Stephen Ireland are both ruled out through long-term injury.
For the Blues, Moses went off with a slight knock against United on Monday, so Kurt Zouma may deputise. Alternatively, Pedro, who has played as a wing-back in Conte’s 3-4-3 against lower league opposition in the FA Cup, could be a surprise alternative to Zouma in that position.
Stoke are actually unbeaten at home since mid-November, so this will not be an easy game for Chelsea. Mark Hughes’ men will likely flood the midfield and look to stifle the Blues, making it hard for the likes of Eden Hazard to play with the freedom with which he was able to dominate Manchester United on Monday. Chelsea can expect to have the lion’s share of possession, but whether they can make the most of it remains to be seen.
As ever, the Potters retain their excellent scoring record from set-pieces. Of their 32 league goals, only four have come from outside the area, and 12 (38%) of their goals this season have come directly from free-kicks or corners. Chelsea will have to be on alert to limit set-piece opportunities for the hosts, but, ironically, what is perhaps key to any potential chance of victory will be how quickly Chelsea can counter Stoke following set-piece situations.
Chelsea don’t necessarily need to win this game – and, for certain, this won’t be an easy game for the Blues. However, their confidence is simply stunning at the moment, and they probably have too much up top for the Potters.
Chelsea are playing a side that has conceded just eight goals in the past nine league matches – and four of those were in a single game at White Hart Lane. This is unlikely to be a goal-fest!
We predict it’ll finish Stoke City 0-1 Chelsea, with Eden Hazard netting the winner.
We’ll leave you with this – a throw-back to a 2-1 win at Stoke in 2009, en route to us winning the double under Carlo Ancelotti! Florent Malouda scored a 95th-minute winner for us as we came from 0-1 down!