Chelsea v Stoke, Premier League, April 25, 2010
Last weekend was bad for Chelsea.
After being dumped out the Champions League by Inter Milan, the Blues had appeared to be going through the motions of sowing up a league and FA Cup double during March and most of April. Carlo Ancelotti’s men were motoring to success, recording a 5-nil win at Pompey, a 7-1 home battering of Aston Villa, and crucially a 2-1 away win at nearest title rivals Manchester United.
But at White Hart Lane last weekend the wheels came crashing off for the Blues. Losing 2-1 to London neighbours Tottenham, Chelsea were reduced to looking ordinary and highly beatable as the Lilywhites battered the Pensioners in virtually every aspect of the match. Suddenly, at arguably the worst time possible, Chelsea looked flimsy and riddled with mistakes. And with Manchester United winning at Eastlands, all of a sudden the title race was firmly back on with Chelsea’s lead shrunk to just one point with three league matches remaining.
The fallout from the Tottenham defeat affects Chelsea’s preparations for the visit of Stoke on Sunday, specifically in the defensive positions. Captain John Terry, whose form has significantly dipped since his marital problems were splashed all over the papers earlier in the year, will be absent after picking up a needless red card at Spurs. In addition, holding midfielder John Obi Mikel is a major doubt for the home match against the Potters this weekend after the Nigerian picked up a knee injury last time out.
Missing Terry and Mikel, Ancelotti will need to shuffle his troops accordingly as physical Stoke arrive in the capital. Ricardo Carvalho, who picked up an ankle injury several weeks back, is unlikely to be rushed back into the team, however Ashley Cole could make his long awaited return at left-back.
Should Cole return, he will likely line up alongside Paulo Ferreira, Branislav Ivanovic and Alex in the Blues backline, while Petr Cech will be dispatched between the sticks.
The other major concern for Chelsea surrounds the enforcer role in midfield, in which Ancelotti appears to have two alternative options. Deco, although potentially a little short against the abrasive style that Stoke employ, has more than enough experience and guile to fill out that deep-lying midfield role. But should Ancelotti feel that height is key to combat the Potters, Michael Ballack could be asked to sacrifice his usual midfield position to play more defensively.
Looking at how they can hurt Stoke, though, Chelsea again seem to have various options to play with. With the best squad in the country, Ancelotti is spoiled for choice with the excellent Florent Malouda and Yuri Zhirkov both available to bomb down the left hand side, while over on the right Joe Cole and Nicolas Anelka could both operate, depending on what system the Blues adopt. Elsewhere, Frank Lampard (seven goals in his last six matches) will be looking to continue his hot goalscoring-streak, while Didier Drogba, who looked well off the pace at Spurs, will be hoping to put in a better showing this weekend if he overcomes a groin problem.
While the Pensioners suffered disappointment last weekend, the same was true for mid-table Stoke who succumbed to a surprise 2-1 home defeat to relegation-strugglers Bolton. After conceding two late goals to Matty Taylor, the fear for Potters’ fans heading to the Bridge will be that Stoke’s season may end on a damp squib having secured their Premier League status for another year.
Last weekend saw Matthew Etherington, Riccardo Fuller and James Beattie – three of Stoke’s key attacking components – all make their returns to the first team following respective periods on the sidelines with injuries. All three could be in line for starts against the league leaders, with the likes of Dave Kitson and Tuncay Sanli benched as a result.
Defensively, Tony Pulis has built his success this season on a rock-solid foundation, with the Potters having only conceded five more goals than Chelsea all season in the league. Thomas Sorenson remains the number one despite Asmir Begovic’s arrival in the winter, while Robert Huth, Danny Collins and Danny Higginbotham should be rejoined by centre-half Ryan Shawcross this wekend as Stoke roll out their first choice back-four.
Chelsea have already beaten Stoke twice this season, beating the Potters 2-1 at the Britannia back in September while knocking the Stoke out of the FA Cup 2-nil in March, and the Pensioners dominance in this fixture stretches back much further with Stoke having last claimed the three points back in 1975.
Stoke’s rough and tumble style could definitely unease Chelsea on Sunday, particularly if the Blues fail to find an early goal. However, with Ancelotti’s men still on course for the league championship this year, and with Liverpool away up next weekend, it would be a major shock if the Blues don’t claim the victory this weekend.
101gg predicts: Chelsea 2 – Stoke 1 (5.85)