Match Preview: Chelsea vs. Stoke City
Bet365 Stadium/March 18, 2017
The Bet365 Stadium is a difficult ground for Premier League teams because on their day Stoke City can cause any team trouble, just ask Pep Guardiola and Man City. Their style of play has been reinvented since Mark Hughes took over from Tony Pulis, they tend to play the ball more now. And he seems to have the players for it too with Xherdan Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic and Ibrahim Afellay in their ranks. This game would have a lot riding on it for the away side who are on the way to winning the league but that’s not to say Stoke City are just going to roll over and allow Chelsea run them over. If the reverse fixture is an indication, this isn’t going to be an easy day in office for Antonio Conte and his charges. With only Arsenal also playing on Saturday, the gap at the top could be increased to 13 points by the end of the match and that will mean another step closer to the title for the Blues. We have not won at Stoke in the last three seasons (L1 D2). This one is delicately poised. Stoke have finished the last two seasons in ninth position which incidentally is their current league position. Stoke have conceded four goals from all for occupants of the top four positions on the table, twice against Spurs without reply. But they are also of only two teams this season to score two goals at Stamford Bridge after Liverpool and the first since the change to three at the back.
Conte has almost a full squad to choose from with Moses the only injury worry. With both Fabregas and Pedro dropping down to the bench for the visit of Manchester United on Monday night they will be hoping to be involved from the start this weekend but having said that neither Willian nor Matic did their chances any harm with their showing on Monday. Stoke are likely to cede possession of the ball to us and hope to hit us on the counter which is where the incisiveness of Fabregas’ passing comes in handy. Victor Moses, if he gets to play, and Pedro or Willian on one side and Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard would be key for us on Saturday afternoon because Stoke City’s defensive weakness is at their fullback positions and both Arnautovic and Shaqiri likes to cut inside and shoot whenever the opportunity presents itself. I’m sure Conte would have prepared our wingbacks for that eventuality.
Injuries: Moses (Calf strain) – Doubtful
Last 5 matches: WWWWD
Although Jack Butland was given the all-clear to start training again after almost one year out with injury this game might come a little too soon for him. So his very able deputy, Lee Grant would most likely continue in goal. The obvious headache for Hughes would be whether to go with the speed and finesse of Berahino or the height advantage of Peter Crouch that was used to great effect in the reverse fixture on New Year’s Eve. Ibrahim Afellay would most certainly play behind whoever is chosen to lead the line with Arnautovic and Shaqiri occupying the wings with Joe Allen and Charlie Adam or Glen Whelan in central midfield.
Injuries: M. Diouf (Knee) – Major doubt; G. Johnson (Shoulder) – Expected to return; X. Shaqiri (Calf) – Expected to return; Jack Butland (Ankle) – Major doubt; S. Ireland (Broken leg) –Major doubt
Last 5 matches: DWLWL
3 Matchups to Watch
- Costa vs. Shawcross: This one is going to be an intriguing all afternoon because Ryan Shawcross will not back down from the physical battle Diego Costa is sure to bring. I don’t see Costa scoring in this one because he’s sure to have his hands full with Stoke City’s captain but that might open up spaces for our other attacking talents to seize up on just like it happened at Stamford Bridge.
- Luiz vs. Crouch: The more the season has progressed the more our centre defensive pairings have been targeted with long balls but only Spurs and Swansea have been to reap a direct reward. I suspect Stoke would employ the same tactic having profited from their long balls into the box at Stamford Bridge but judging by how well our defense handled Andy Caroll last time out Conte sure is working on how to counter that obvious ‘weakness’.
- Kante vs. Allen: Stoke like to dominate in midfield areas but they are likely to sit back and let us have most of the ball. If they choose to sit back then Joe Allen would be the one to drive them forward whenever they have the ball back and to do that he would have to go through Kante. Allen has been pushed forward a little more than he’s used to this season and he seemed to be the reaping the rewards already with six Premier League goals to his name already but he’s likely to play a little closer to the defense in this game to help close down the spaces. I cannot wait to see how this battle of two midfield lynchpins unfolds.
I expect Stoke to seat back and hope to hit us on the break but in all I expect nothing less than threepoints that would set us up nicely for the home straight before the last international break of the season.