A superbly struck first-half free-kick from Oscar was enough to take Chelsea into the FA Cup fifth round, where they will face a heavyweight encounter against Manchester City, after a 1-0 victory over Stoke City at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea had an element of control throughout and could and should have had far more than just the Brazilian’s 26th minute strike to show for their efforts. But, with the woodwork intervening in each half and several other opportunities failing to be capitalized upon, the tie, at least in theory, remained in some doubt until the very end.
Still, despite being in touch on the scoreboard, there was never the feeling that the visitors would find an equalizer. Mark Hughes’s side showed a stark lack of ambition for long periods and throughout, even when getting more men forward, lacked a cohesive strategy for how to go about troubling a Chelsea defense that has now conceded just once in the team’s last five matches. Certainly it was not hard to see why Stoke are one of the Premier League’s lowest scorers this season.
Just a day after Juan Mata had completed his exit to Manchester United, Chelsea’s play provided a demonstration, whether one agrees with it or not, why the inventive Spaniard was surplus to requirements. The excellent duo of Eden Hazard and Oscar, along with the quieter Andre Schurrle, gave the side a pace and directness with which Jose Mourinho is clearly intent on playing. With Nemanja Matic, who brought an element of control to the base of midfield, making his debut and with Mohamed Salah soon to follow, this was perhaps the start of the second stage of Mourinho’s second spell at Stamford Bridge. While he will want his side to be more clinical, it is clear -- unlike Stoke -- what their game plan is and that the players are becoming increasingly comfortable in deploying it.
Chelsea almost got off to a dream start when Samuel Eto’o came close to immediately building on his hat-trick against Manchester United last weekend in the opening two minutes but on this occasion his low shot went just wide of the post.
Stoke had an early effort too, when Peter Crouch headed wide at the near post having got to a cross ahead of David Luiz and Mark Schwarzer. But that was too prove an all-too rare glimpse of the danger Hughes’ side could pose from crosses into the box. Chelsea were largely comfortable and, with 26 minutes on the clock, they got their breakthrough.
There was much consternation from a Stoke point of view at the award of the free-kick that led to the goal when Eto’o’s yelp seemed to sway referee Chris Foy as much as any contact from behind by Erik Pieters. There was no dispute about what followed, though, as Oscar stepped up to the ball and, with Asmir Begovic taking a pivotal step toward his near post, he whipped the ball into the top corner of the goalkeeper’s far post with incredible power and direction.
Having gotten in front, Mourinho may have rued the fact that his side didn’t have the tie all-but wrapped up at the interval. Frank Lampard was unusually wasteful in front of goal, first failing to make clean contact in front of goal following some superb skill from Hazard down the right, before he blasted over after arriving onto a pull-back on the edge of the box. In between another chance went begging when, again from excellent creative work from Hazard, Oscar broke clear into the box but drilled his low shot against the near post.
In the midst of that glut of chances for the home side, Stoke had perhaps their best opportunity of the period. Having finally gotten men forward to support an attack, Stephen Ireland was found breaking into the box, but his shot was post and into the side netting.
The goalmouth action continued after the break, but with Chelsea still unable to get the comfort of a second goal. The woodwork was again hit, this time when Schurrle was picked out by Oscar but could only strike the outside of the post as he looked to place the ball in the top corner. Oscar, himself, found his finishing again wanting when he curled wide of the far post after some clever buildup play.
Perhaps the worst miss came from Eto’o. The Cameroonian completed his poor day in front of goal when prodding wide from close range after Ramires had failed to turn in another brilliant ball from Hazard. Ultimately, Chelsea’s profligacy was not costly with Stoke unable to create even a single chance late on. It promises to be a much different kind of test in the next round at the Etihad.