Chelsea will attempt to reestablish a three-point lead at the top of the Premier League when they visit Stoke City on Monday night. Manchester City’s run of fine form continued with a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday to move them level on points with Chelsea and apply pressure entering the hectic festive schedule.
The trip to the Britannia Stadium is Chelsea’s first of four Premier League fixtures in 11 days, culminating with a visit to Tottenham on New Year’s Day. The tightening of the gap at the top means it could be a key period. In Mourinho’s first spell in charge at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea recorded perfect records over Christmas in both of his first two seasons and on each occasion went onto win the Premier League at a canter.
If he is to continue that record, Mourinho is likely to need all of his squad ready to perform. Chelsea have fielded a remarkably consistent lineup throughout the season so far and Mourinho has accepted that some of his players could be frustrated by their lack of minutes. But he is adamant that the team must come first, and cited the example of John Mikel Obi to illustrate what he expects.
“The first time he played [from the start in the Premier League] was Newcastle and he was our best player,” he said, reports Chelsea’s official website. “How can he be our best player if he didn’t play in three months? Because he was working every day at the top level. Sad, frustrated, not happy? Maybe. But professional -- that’s what I expect from the players.
“It’s the concept of helping the team. Everybody has to be ready to sacrifice for the team, to give everything for the team, to think about the team and not to be selfish. This is the way I want a team to be.”
Mikel has started the last four games, while the likes of Filipe Luis and Petr Cech have also been handed rare chances recently. But, with Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta and Cesc Fabregas expected to return on Monday, all could find themselves back on the bench.
Mourinho will be well aware of the threat Stoke pose to his side’s hopes. In the same fixture last season, Chelsea went down 3-2 after a 90th minute winner from Oussama Assaidi. Stoke manager Mark Hughes, though, believes his team till face a tougher proposition this time around.
"They are strong enough [to win a quadruple this season]; obviously people they've added to the squad have taken them to a different from last season certainly,” he said, according to Stoke City’s official website. “I would suggest they are stronger to attempt to win the Premier League this time around. "They will always have the resources to add to their squad and make themselves strong and even if they have injuries in key positions, they have outstanding young players who can supplement what they've got.”
Hughes’s own squad will be depleted by injuries to Steve Sidwell, Peter Odemwingie, Dionatan Teixeira, but in-form Bojan Krkic is expected to be fit. Stoke currently lie in 13th place in the Premier League, having bounced back from three straight defeats to take four points from their last two matches. Part of that run was a victory over Arsenal, which continued Stoke’s fine record over the Premier League’s big guns this season, having also beaten Tottenham and Manchester City.
Prediction: Stoke are rarely pushovers, even for the Premier League’s best teams. That can be particularly true at home in front of one of the most passionate sets of fans, however Stoke’s record at the Britannia Stadium is not as impressive as their reputation suggests. While Chelsea have looked a little weary of late and it will be a tough examination, this is just the type of fixture where their physical and mental resilience should come to the fore to eke out a win.
Stoke 1-2 Chelsea
Kickoff time: 3 p.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra