Chelsea guarantee Christmas number one at Stoke City

CHELSEA ensured top spot in the Premier League at Christmas with a hard-fought 2-0 victory in a bruising encounter at Stoke City.

  •  Chelsea lost just one of 26 games in all competitions this season
  •  Seven of last 10 Christmas table-toppers have won Premier League
  •  No clean sheet in 11 league outings for Stoke
  •  John Terry and Cesc Fabregas on target at the Britannia
Chelsea celebrate second goal at Stoke (22nd December 2014)
Joyous scenes: The 2,800 travelling Chelsea fans celebrate Fabregas’ game-clinching goal in the closing phase (Picture from Sky Sports)

CHELSEA tightened their grip on top spot with a hard-fought victory at Stoke in the final Premier League match before Christmas.

Captain John Terry – on his 650th career appearance – headed home a Cesc Fabregas corner in the second minute to give the Blues the perfect start.

Thibault Courtois, who returned to the Chelsea goal after two games out with a muscular injury, saved well from fierce efforts by Steven N’Zonzi and Potters substitute Oussama Assaidi.

But the visitors ensured three vital points when Fabregas latched onto Eden Hazard’s pass and scuffed a low shot into the bottom corner.

Scuffed: The shot was tame and mishit but Fabregas still found the back of the Stoke net
Scuffed: The shot was tame and mishit but Fabregas still found the back of the Stoke net (Picture from Sky Sports)

After suffering their first defeat of the campaign at Newcastle earlier this month, Jose Mourinho’s side have responded with three straight wins and have restored their three-point lead at the summit after Manchester City beat Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Top of the tree: Chelsea will head into the festive period with a marginal gap over their rivals
Top of the tree: Chelsea will head into the festive period with a marginal gap over their rivals (Picture from Sky Sports)

On the three previous occasions the west London outfit have topped the table on December 25, they have gone on to lift the trophy – and Mourinho will be confident his side can repeat the feat of his 2004 and 2005 title-winning sides after overcoming a tough hurdle on a wintry night in Staffordshire.

The only blot on the copybook was a injury sustained late on by Hazard, who was caught on the left heel by Jon Walters and the Belgian was taken off with Boxing Day’s clash against West Ham at Stamford Bridge in mind.

Precaution: Hazard was replaced by Kurt Zouma for the final stages
Precaution: Hazard was replaced by Kurt Zouma for the final stages (Picture from Sky Sports)

Stoke have a habit of giving the Premier League’s top-half teams a run for their money having won 3-2 against Arsenal in their previous home match – and beat Chelsea by the same scoreline 12 months ago.

But – in front of the biggest attendance at the Britannia Stadium since May 2012 – the Potters struggled to make an impression as they remain in 13th place with just one win from their last six games under former Chelsea hitman Mark Hughes.

The Blues had only taken maximum points on one of their previous four trips to the Potteries but they were given the perfect platform by their skipper on a landmark outing for him.

John Terry goal analysis 1-0 for Chelsea (v Stoke - 22nd Dec 2014)
On the mark: Centre-back Terry got Chelsea off to a flyer at the Britannia with a fine header (Picture from Sky Sports)

With the game barely 90 seconds old, Terry wrestled off Geoff Cameron from Fabregas’ set-piece to direct a close range header past Asmir Begovic for his first league goal since the beginning of December 2013 against Southampton.

It was a 12th assist of the campaign for the irrepressible Fabregas – who returned to midfield in one of three changes to the side that beat Hull 2-0 nine days ago.

Chelsea signalled their intent early doors with Stoke, amid a subdued atmosphere in the opening exchanges, looking rattled and ragged.

Under pressure: Neil Swarbrick felt the heat on a challenging night for the referee
Under pressure: Neil Swarbrick felt the heat on a challenging night for the referee (Picture from Sky Sports)

Blues boss Mourinho had claimed in the build-up his hopes that referee Neil Swarbrick would deal appropriately with aggressive play.

And the Portuguese was left angered when Potters full-back Phil Bardsley left his mark on Hazard with a reckless challenge as the forward surged down the left flank – earning only a yellow card.

Bardsley booking 20 mins analysis
Rash: Bardsley was cautioned for lunging in late on Hazard – but some thought it was worthy of a red card (Picture from Sky Sports)

The bruising and competitive nature of the contest gave the officials a tough job and Mourinho was again exasperated when Swarbrick inadvertently intercepted the ball with a counter attack on for his team.

Two sides of the divide: Emotions often ran high in both technical areas
Two sides of the divide: Emotions often ran high in both technical areas (Picture from Sky Sports)

Courtois – who reclaimed his place ahead of Petr Cech – saved well from N’Zonzi after his distance strike took a nick off Terry as Stoke enjoyed a spell of pressure midway through the first half.

But the visitors had a firm stranglehold and Diego Costa should have added to his tally of 12 league goals this term on the half-hour mark.

The Spaniard raced clear from an onside position – as Stoke skipper Ryan Shawcross failed in his attempt to catch the striker offside – but dragged wide when found by an incisive Fabregas through-ball.

It was a tough opening 45 minutes for Stoke – particularly Bardsley, who could have been shown a second yellow when appearing to tug Costa’s shirt outside the box as the ex-Atletico Madrid man rampaged towards the penalty area.

Matic man of the match
Top performer: The Serbian stood out again in the holding midfield role – the only game he has missed this term is the only one the Blues have lost (Picture from Sky Sports)

The Potters built up some momentum soon after the break but – with the impressive Nemanja Matic and Jon Obi Mikel protecting the defence – a disciplined Chelsea were firmly in the driving seat and the more dangerous attacking force.

With the need to inject urgency and liveliness into his side, Hughes sent on Mame Biram Diouf and Charlie Adam from the bench in place of Cameron and Peter Crouch.

Frustration: The Stoke gaffer was disappointed with his side's start to the game
Frustration: The Stoke gaffer was disappointed with his side’s start to the game

And Adam almost provided immediate inspiration with the former Blackpool midfielder – one away from 50 goals in his English club career – sending a rasping left-footed drive inches wide from Marko Arnautovic’s lay-off.

It was some encouragement for the now boisterous Potters faithful but any hope was extinguished 12 minutes from time.

An exquisite touch from Fabregas deceived Shawcross and there was enough power in his bobbled effort to trickle into the bottom corner for his second league goal of the season.

On the scoresheet: Former Arsenal midfielder Fabregas also netted against Crystal Palace in October
On the scoresheet: The ex-Arsenal midfielder also netted against Crystal Palace in October (Picture from Sky Sports)

Costa was denied by a smothering stop from Begovic and involved in a spat with the Stoke boss which had to be defused by fourth official Andre Marriner before being withdrawn for the arrival of Didier Drogba.

The bigger concern for Mourinho was the circumstances in which Hazard left the field, hobbling off in stoppage time but the prognosis does not appear to be as worrying as first feared.

Up and down: Mourinho switched between a seated and standing view of the action throughout
Up and down: Mourinho switched between a seated and standing view of the action throughout (Picture from Sky Sports)

Stoke offered a late rally with Courtois called into action from substitute Oussama Assaidi’s effort while Bojan Krkic fizzed another shot narrowly wide of the target.

But it was Chelsea who deservedly prevailed, keeping a fifth clean sheet in six games in the process as they lead the way heading into the busiest part of the festive period.

Next up: What Chelsea are faced with in the coming weeks in the battle for the Premier League title
Next up: What Chelsea are faced with in the coming weeks in their quest for a first league title since 2009/10 (Picture from Sky Sports)

Top of the Premier League table, through to the last-16 in the Champions League, Capital One Cup semi-finalists and an FA Cup third round home tie against Watford on the horizon – it has certainly been their year so far.

Neil Swarbrick referee (Stoke v Chelsea - 22nd Dec 2014)

Referee:  Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire) – 7/10
Attendance:  27,550

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