A week after Jose Mourinho ruled them out of the title race, Chelsea moved back to the top of the Premier League table with a 3-0 victory over Stoke City at Stamford Bridge.
Ahead of their attempts to overturn a 3-1 deficit against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, Mourinho elected to start with both Eden Hazard and Oscar on the bench. It meant a first start for the club for Mohamed Salah and the former Basel man scored his second Premier League goal to put Chelsea in front by half time following an assist from fellow January signing Nemanja Matic. With Stoke providing scant evidence that they were capable of getting back into the game, Salah was taken down in the box by Andy Wilkinson just past the hour mark to gift Chelsea a penalty.
Frank Lampard’s initial effort was saved by Asmir Begovic but the veteran put it away at the second attempt. The match already effectively ended as a contest, the impressive Willian then took advantage of Stoke’s lethargy to curl in a fine third.
The win takes Chelsea a point clear of Liverpool and two ahead of Manchester City. While the former still has a game in hand and the latter two, Chelsea, whatever their manager may say, certainly still feature in what promises to be a thrilling fight for the Championship especially with a trip to Anfield still to come and Liverpool also having to take on Manchester City. It will likely take a better performance than they produced on Saturday to get a win over Liverpool. However, given the run of fixtures, Chelsea displayed impressive efficiency in disposing of a Stoke side, who it was all too obvious had already secured their Premier League safety and lacked the intensity so vital to their play.
Having been publicly derided by his manager in midweek, Fernando Torres showed plenty of enthusiasm in the opening stages, but did little to suggest Mourinho’s comments, if admittedly not tactful, weren’t accurate. The £50 million man fired a fierce shot from 20 yards but it traveled comfortably wide. He had an even better chance later on when Stoke sloppily gave the ball away and Erik Pieters made a hash of attempting to help a cross back to his keeper on his chest, allowing Torres to pounce but Begovic got out smartly to block the shot.
Just before that chance, Lampard had squandered an opportunity when receiving a touch back on the edge of the box, but firing, what was by his standards, a tame shot. But the pressure from Chelsea was growing. While far from devastating going forward, Chelsea were controlling the game and there were positive signs from their unfamiliar attacking midfield trio of Salah, William and Andre Schurrle.
And on 32 minutes, Chelsea got their goal, with Stoke’s previous solid defensive effort coming undone. Nemanja Matic was allowed to receive a throw in down the left and hold off the scant challenge of Peter Odemwingie before drilling a low pull back into the danger zone. Salah had cleverly pulled back and was perfectly positioned to small a first-time shot that struck Begovic on its way into the net.
The home side thought they had secured a second goal before the break, too. But Branislav Ivanovic’s fine header from a Lampard cross was correctly and impressively ruled out with the defender having strayed inches offside.
Even without the comfort another goal before the interval, the second-half was a non-event. Stoke only managed a solitary shot at goal in the opening period and they again failed to call Petr Cech into any meaningful action after the break. The one real chance they created throughout the entire contest was when a long diagonal ball from Steven N’Zonzi that caught out Gary Cahill and found Marko Aranautovic in behind but the technically gifted winger’s touch was found unusually wanting.
By that point Chelsea had already doubled their lead. Hazard temporarily lifted a largely hushed atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge when coming on in the 59th minute and immediately had a major impact. The Belgian took the attention of several Stoke defenders in the box and after a clever drag back to find Salah, Wilkinson foolishly lunged in on the Egyptian when he showed a turn of pacer to move toward the byline. Although Lampard’s penalty was well saved by Begovic, the midfielder reacted quickest to lunge in and turn the ball home from close range.
The third goal then made it all too evident that Stoke’s resistance had ceased. There was no pressure on the ball whatsoever as Willian received a short pass from Salah and was then allowed to saunter toward the edge of the box. With Ryan Shawcross refusing to close him down, the Brazilian curled a fetching effort into the net to confirm a win that gets Chelsea’s season back on track after back-to-back defeats.