- 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire) – 7/10