Saturday 23rd September, Bet365 Stadium – Chelsea were away to Stoke City in their sixth Premier League game of the season. It wasn’t exactly the proverbial cold Monday night at Stoke, but given the context of Chelsea’s feckless, disappointing goalless draw against Arsenal, this could easily have been a very tricky fixture for them.
Stoke have been a tough, physical side in defence for many years. But in a sign of changing times in the premier league, they – and many other mid-table EPL teams – now also have pretty good quality up front. They’re still the Stoke of Charlie Adam and Ryan Shawcross, but now they also have players like Saido Berahino, Maxim Choupo-Moting, Mame Biram Diouf, ex-Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri, and Alvaro Morata’s former Real Madrid teammate Jese Rodriguez.
During the week, both Manchester United and Manchester City managers Mourinho and Guardiola had complained about their League Cup fixtures, implying that they were unnecessary and detrimental to bigger EPL and European fixtures. At Chelsea though, there were no complaints. Their game against Nottingham Forest had almost been necessary to apply pressure to their starters, especially after the poor showing against Arsenal.
Antonio Conte made what looked like some good choices for this game, reverting to two dedicated CDM’s in midfield, N’golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko. Antonio Rudiger also started in place of Gary Cahill at right center back. Bakayoko had experienced a minor vehicle accident during the week when his car ran off the road, but thankfully he was not hurt. David Luiz was suspended, so Andreas Christensen started in his place at center back. Eden Hazard was on the bench today, resting after the midweek game.
Stoke had experienced some difficult results after their 2 – 2 draw against Manchester United. They’d lost 2 – 1 away to Newcastle United in the league, then 2 – 0 to Bristol City in the Carabao Cup. Chelsea loanee Kurt Zouma was ineligible for selection against his parent club, so he wasn’t on the team sheet. Kevin Wimmer was out injured, and ex-Chelsea and Liverpool full-back Glen Johnson started his place. Ramadhan Sobhi was on the bench at St. James Park, but started the game this weekend. Ryan Shawcross missed the game with a back injury.
Line-Ups & Ratings
Butland 4, Shaqiri 6, Indi 6 (Afellay 4), Pieters 5, Fletcher 4, Johnson 4, Allen 7, Sobhi 5, Choupo-Moting 6, Jese 5 (Crouch 6)
Subs Grant, Souttar, Tymon, Afellay, Adam, Berahino, Crouch
Courtois 7, Alonso 5 (Cahill 5), Rudiger 8, Christensen 8, Azpilicueta 8.5, Moses 6, Kante 8, Bakayoko 8, Willian 5 (Hazard 6), Pedro 7 (Fabregas 7), Morata 9
Subs Caballero, Cahill, Zappacosta, Fabregas, Musonda, Hazard, Batshuayi
The first major action of the game wound up in a Chelsea goal. Maybe Stoke were encouraged by their last home game against Manchester United, because they pressed Chelsea high up the pitch from kick-off. Mark Hughes got it wrong though, because under Conte, Chelsea love to play the fast break.
Bakayoko stole possession off Choupo-Moting after a Stoke throw-in in Chelsea’s half, then dribbled past three players before laying off to Kante, who passed it on to Azpilicueta. The center back looked up, spotted Stoke’s defence high up and Morata on side, and played a long ball over the top for him. Morata lost his marker and ran onto the ball, controlled it with a touch, then calmly side-footed it right of the keeper. It was a very good finish – Butland and Indi seemed to have closed off the space but somehow Morata put the ball between them. Less than ninety seconds played, Chelsea were up 1 – 0.
Stoke soon created a bit of pressure in response but Chelsea stood firm – Diouf cut inside past Alonso and made a great cross into the six yard box, but Azpilicueta cut out the danger. Shaqiri also tried getting in via Chelsea’s left-wing, but this time Rudiger trapped the ball with a sliding tackle.
On the half hour, Erik Pieters intercepted a headed pass from Pedro just outside his penalty area, before for some reason team captain Darren Fletcher chested the ball back in ahead of Pedro. He didn’t waste the opportunity, racing into the box and looping a shot past the despairing Butland and into the far corner. Pedro has sometimes faded in and out of games this season, but he’s remained consistent in his ability to pop up with great opportunities for himself and some really important goals.
Chelsea had a few minor scares before halftime. Bakayoko brought down Allen just outside the box, but Shaqiri’s free kick came off the wall for a corner. Shaqiri almost got the ball to Choupo-Moting from another corner, but the ball was cleared. Diouf attempted a spectacular overhead kick off a cross, but it went wrong side of the post and out.
More Disciplinary Issues
Diouf and Alonso had been engaged in a running battle on the left wing all afternoon long. Alonso must’ve lost his patience, because around 10 minutes into the second half, he made a couple of tackles for which he was very nearly sent off. Antonio Conte had to intervene quickly to substitute him off for Cahill, before Chelsea ended up with yet another red card.
Rudiger and Christensen also had to spend quite a bit of time protecting Alonso today. It’s understandable because both Shaqiri and Diouf are tough players to handle, but you wonder if maybe Alonso could benefit from a couple of games’ rest.
First The Mace Then The Stiletto
Cahill came in at center back and Rudiger took Alonso’s place at left-wing back. Mark Hughes subbed on Peter Crouch, and for a while Chelsea just couldn’t deal with him. They went through a hairy ten-minute period in which Stoke had a series of long range set pieces and Chelsea looked sure to concede. In response, Conte brought on Fabregas and then Hazard, presumably to take back control of the game. And that’s what they did.
Their intelligence and finesse on the ball had an immediate effect – it was almost as if in the first half Conte had used a mace against the opposition, and in the second half he switched it for a stiletto. Exactly five minutes after Hazard came on, Chelsea had scored their third goal. Ten minutes later they’d scored a fourth.
Adapting And Learning
The first of those two goals though, was all about Alvaro Morata’s individual brilliance. Bakayoko made another critical interception off Glen Johnson on the halfway line. The ball fell to Morata, and he sprinted forty yards down the left wing, dribbling past Fletcher in the process. He wound up completely alone and unsupported on the left edge of their six-yard box, but he didn’t seem to mind – somehow finishing at pace from an acute angle for his second goal.
Morata had a little bit of a nightmare against Arsenal last Sunday, and Batshuayi had thrown down the gauntlet with his hat trick midweek. Conte would have been expecting a response from his starting striker, and what a response this was – world class finishing for both goals.
Another Hat Trick
Morata wasn’t done yet. Stoke were little bit stunned by the goal and the shift in play. They were spending more time in their own half now, and Fabregas spotted Azpilicueta making a run into the box. He hit a first-time lob over the defence for him, and Azpilicueta side-footed it across goal to Morata, who just managed to stab it in for his third goal.
The home defence had been suffering since Bruno Martins Indi came off for Ibrahim Afellay, and Morata actually had two great chances to score a fourth goal. First off another through ball, and second from a mis-hit Moses shot, but his first attempt was just wide, and the second was cleared off the line.
If Chelsea were looking for something to help them forget last weekend, this performance was it. Christensen was quality in defence, Rudiger and Azpilicueta were exemplary as usual, Bakayoko and Kante made their opponents look weak, and Morata was unplayable. Great performance Chelsea!
Final Score Stoke 0 – 4 Chelsea
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Metro
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