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By Paul Lagan at Stamford Bridge
Saturday, September 22, 2012
Premier League: Chelsea 1 Stoke City 0
Ashley Cole broke the defensive spirit of Stoke City with the only goal of the game to extend the Blues’ lead at the top of the Premier League.
His cooly taken toe-poke six minutes from time was enough to move the Blues four points clear of Manchester United who play tomorrow.
Cole was the least likely to breach the Stoke net, such was the attacking talent on show. but he finally added to his last goal - against Wigan in May 2012 - to secure three precious three points.
Chelsea probably had 85 per cent of play, with the visitors content to hang back, frustrate and hopefully strike with a set-piece.
Chelsea started off in a very aggressive and positive fashion, forging several corners on the spin.
The third of these, on seven minutes, resulted in Fernando Torres getting his head to a Juan Mata left-footer curler. Sadly for the Spain forward the effort sailed over the crossbar.
Despite excellent build-up play, equal to Barcelona at their pomp, the Blues still have a look of a side bereft of a killer instinct up front.
Torres certainly was running around making life difficult for Stoke’s rearguard, but didn’t get close to getting on the end of the moves.
The result of this is that Chelsea are restricted to long-range efforts, notably from Oscar, Hazard and Cole, all of which failed to trouble Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.
The visitors almost struck the opener on 19 minutes, when a Glenn Whelan free-kick, halfway into Chelsea’s half, was met forcefully by the head of Jonathan Walters from 10 yards out, which saw the ball ping Petr Cech’s crossbar with the goalkeeper beaten.
The Blues appealed for a penalty three minutes later when Branislav Ivanovic looked like he was tripped by Whelan but in fact the Serbia defender did his best Tom Daley impression.
Torres fluffed his lines once again on 27 minutes when brilliant play by Eden Hazard and Mata saw the Spain midfielder chip the ball over the Stoke centre-back. Torres chested the ball down six yards out but with only the keeper to beat he completely miss-kicked the ball, allowing Bergovic to grab it gleefully.
David Luiz then decided that a 35-yard free kick was the order of the day. But it failed to trouble the stopper.
Six minutes from the end of the half, Marc Wilson decided that a 25-yarder might work, but Cech, like his counterpart, was equal to the task.
But a minute later the keeper was forced into a smart save when a firmly driven ball by Knightly smashed off Geoff Cameron forcing Cech to change direction to snaffle the ball.
Referee Michael Oliver decided that Oscar, on 50 minutes, dived when entering the box after a snazzy one-two with Hazard. The kid from Brazil stayed on his feet a minute later and drove a daisy-cutter, on target from just outside the Stoke penalty area. Bergovic dived to his left to save.
Like the first half, the second followed a similar pattern: lots of Chelsea possession and attack up to the final third, with Stoke content to wait for a set piece or two before threatening the home side’s goal.
Peter Crouch, still buoyed from his fabled goal of last season, attempted something a bit less ambitious when collecting the ball on 57 minutes and his piece of juggling on the edge of the Chelsea area resulted in a shot fired into row Z of the Shed stand rather than the back of the net.
Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo had seen enough of his side’s inability to part the red and white sea that is the Stoke defence and he called and man called Moses to part it as Victor entered the fray on 62 minutes, with Hazard making way.
Ex-England striker Michael Owen then came on for the visitors two minutes later in place of Charlie Adam.
Moses was almost the architect of a Chelsea goal on 6 minutes, when a mazy midfield run by the former Wigan wide man, ended with the ball at Oscars’s feet. The Brazilian’s low drive almost squeezed into the corner of the Stoke net, but Bergovic scrambled across and clutched it to safety.
The mercurial Oscar went closer still three minutes later, this time his drive beat Bergovic but inched wide of goal.
Such was the paucity of goal-threat from Torres that even defensive midfielder Jon Obi Mikel was forced to push forward. The Nigerian sent two efforts on target but again Bergovic was unduly troubled.
Substitute Kenwyn Jones’s aerial capability was soon in evidence when he out jumped Luiz and met a Wilson deep cross with a powerful header which Cech did well to counter.
Perhaps Mikel’s double effort was not appreciated by Di Matteo who replaced him with Frank Lampard.
Three minutes later, and much to the relief of the majority of the 41,112 crowd, the Blues’ relentless pressure finally paid off.
Lampard started the decisive element of the move which saw the ball zip across firstly to Ramires who pushed the ball further wide to Ivanovic. His first-time ball was moved into the six-yard box where Mata let it run under his foot, leaving Cole to clip the ball past a hapless Bergovic from close range.
Unlike Wednesday against Juventus, when the Blues let slip a two-goal lead as Di Matteo failed to close the game out with a defensive substitution, he did not make the same mistake. John Terry was added to the defensive mix in place of Mata with two minutes to go.
It worked and the Blues got back to winning ways following two draws. Next up for the Blues is a home tie against Wolves on Tuesday in the Capital Cup at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea: Cech, Ivanovic, Cole, Luiz, Ramires, Torres, Mata, Oscar, Mikel, Hazrad, Cahill.
Subs: Turnbull, Romeu, Lampard, Moses, Terry, Azpilicueta, Bertrand
Stoke City: Begovic, Cameron, Huth, Whelan, Wilson, N’Zonzi, AdM, Shawcross, Walters, Kightly, Crouch
Subs: Sorensen, Jones, Owen, Whitehead, Upson, Etherington, Shotton.