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Stoke 1-2 Chelsea


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awayshirt.jpgSaturday 12 September 2009, FA Premier League, the Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent

A stoppage-time winner from Florent Malouda ensured Chelsea maintained their flawless start to the new Premier League campaign, as they came from behind to defeat Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium.

The hosts took a first-half lead when club captain Abdoulaye Faye looped a header over Petr Cech, who had attempted to claim a deep cross from City midfielder Glenn Whelan. Didier Drogba's fourth goal of the season handed the Blues a lifeline when he swivelled on the edge of the area before launching a fabulous effort into the top corner moments before the half-time whistle, and Florent Malouda clinched a deserved winner for his side deep into injury time. With only seconds remaining, the former Lyon winger took a calm touch inside the area before thrashing the ball beyond Steve Simonsen to send the travelling supporters into ecstasy.

It had been a tough few weeks for Chelsea Football Club - despite topping the Premier League table heading into this physical encounter with Tony Pulis' side, a transfer embargo placed on the club by FIFA was made all the worse by the football governing body dictating that the Blues would not be able to bring loaned youngsters back in January to cover for the club's African stars, who will be away on international duty during the winter. Carlo Ancelotti's side had been offered a massive incentive to go on and claim victory against Stoke, and though the home faithful were quick to point out that Chelsea would indeed not be bringing anyone else to Stamford Bridge for the foreseeable future, the Blues were keen to prove that team resolve could not be higher as Malouda and his elated teammates celebrated a defining victory.

Critics may point out that this win was not against the likes of Manchester United or Liverpool, rather in fact Stoke City, but manager Carlo Ancelotti was full of respect for his opposite number Tony Pulis, and the way the hosts put in a "fantastic" and "heroic" rearguard action as they looked to halt Chelsea's march to the title. Few teams will come to the Britannia Stadium and leave with all three points, but as cruel and heart-breaking as a last-minute goal may be for the home side, it would take a very ignorant football supporter to say the Blues did not warrant a tenth consecutive Premier League victory; a club record-equalling feat.

Expecting a typically-physical and combative performance from Stoke, Ancelotti elected to shuffle his pack once again, as the more aggressive Branislav Ivanovic began alongside John Terry, who had led England to World Cup qualification in a fantastic 5-1 demolition of Croatia at Wembley in midweek. Frank Lampard, who had scored two goals in that particular victory, was joined in midfield by Michael Ballack, John Mikel Obi and Florent Malouda as the Blues reverted to the diamond midfield favoured by their Italian coach. Michael Essien was therefore on the bench alongside the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Ricardo Carvalho, who had all enjoyed solid games against Burnley two weeks ago. Anderson Deco was out with an injury sustained on international duty, meaning Juliano Belletti was drafted into the squad.

Stoke made a number of changes themselves, with former Chelsea youngster Robert Huth coming into the heart of defence as he made his début for the club, whilst his former Middlesbrough team-mate Tuncay Sanli would come on in the second half to make his first appearance for the hosts, who lined up with five defenders and three hard-tackling midfielders to combat the well-oiled engine of the Chelsea attack. Malouda's late drive ensured their endeavours well all ultimately in vain, but Stoke's starting eleven were hard-working until the very last kick.

The first effort of the game fell to the hosts and former Southampton striker James Beattie, who had previously scored at both ends when Chelsea defeated the Saints at Stamford Bridge towards the beginning of the 2004/05 campaign. A long, hopeful ball punted forward by ex-Sunderland defender Danny Collins should have been dealt with by Ivanovic, but indecision by the Serbian resulted in the ball falling to Beattie, who snatched his unexpected opportunity wide. Whilst shooting, Beattie appeared to twist his right ankle and was stretchered off the pitch to generous round of applause from both sets of fans. Ricardo Fuller made a sooner-than-anticipated venture on to the field of play after only ten minutes.

Premier League referees have rarely ever been in the good books of the Chelsea faithful, and match official Mike Dean was doing his best to maintain that trend with a series of very questionable decisions. The first was a yellow card awarded to Salomon Kalou, who was deemed to have deliberately blocked a Rory Delap throw-in despite being the required two yards from the touchline. Kalou had managed to block the throw with his head, but the referee immediately signalled for a Stoke free kick, though the danger was superbly cleared away by a towering header from Blues striker Drogba.

Didier Drogba's defensive duties for Chelsea are appreciated by very few, but the added height of the Ivorian was welcomed by John Terry, who, together with Drogba, had been imperious in the air and together the pair were denying Stoke in their attempts to utilise set-piece opportunities to their advantage. But whilst the pair - ably assisted by the likes of John Mikel Obi, Ivanovic and Ashley Cole - were succeeding in dealing with numerous Stoke dead-ball deliveries, Petr Cech was finding himself prone to being in two minds on more than one occasion. Though the Czech goalkeeper had done well to punch away a Glen Whelan free kick early on, Chelsea's number one looked prone to the odd error, and it was through his indecision that the hosts took the lead.

Ancelotti was clearly displeased by his goalkeeper as he ventured out of his goal to claim a Whelan cross from the right touchline after his initial free kick had been blocked by José Bosingwa, but, stopping half-way, he could only watch on as Abdoulaye Faye headed home from sixteen yards. Cech kicked the ball away, head in hands, and his frustration was only heightened by the outfield players' inability to string passes together as Chelsea looked to respond.

Thomas Sorensen made a low save to deny Ashley Cole, who shot from a tight angle after combining with Malouda, but the Danish goalkeeper appeared to be in some discomfort, and Stoke were forced to make their second substitution of the first half to replace the injured goalkeeper, with Steve Simonsen coming on to cheers from the home fans. Simonsen's first touch of the ball, however, was to pick it up from out of the net after Drogba had launched an unstoppable effort into the top corner. Lampard played a cute, disguised ball into the Ivorian's path, who shot with considerable power and accuracy across the goalkeeper and into the top corner. Ancelotti's mood had visibly improved, but following a promising, dominant beginning to the second period, one would rightfully assume that there were more than a few stern words exchanged in the dressing rooms during half-time.

It might be a slight hyperbole to say the Blues began the second half like a house on fire, but they were passing the ball with guile and the movement by Malouda and Lampard in particular was irresistible as they looked to capitalise on a strong beginning to the second period. Chelsea then won a succession of corners, but disappointing deliveries from the usually-reliable Lampard left much to be desired. At the other end, Stoke responded through a trademark Rory Delap throw, which Cech did well to palm behind as he came through a crowded six yard box to clear. The Czech then got down quickly to save Kitson's goal-bound header from the resulting corner as he looked to make amends for his earlier error.

Robert Huth, who won the Premier League with the Blues in 2005 and 2006, then headed over with an hour on the clock, though he was climbing all over his compatriot Michael Ballack which the linesman acknowledged. A series of substitutions followed, as the industrious Essien was introduced to the Chelsea midfield, joined by Nicolas Anelka who replaced the disappointingly-quiet Kalou – Michael Ballack had made way for Essien after a typically-commanding performance from the German. Tuncay came on for Stoke shortly afterwards, though through the efforts of Mikel, was kept reasonably quiet on his début.

The final twenty minutes were totally dominated by the Blues, and only the superb defence of the home side was keeping Chelsea at bay. Faye was absolutely unbeatable at the heart of the Potters' defence; first deflecting a Bosingwa cross away from goal with Anelka looking to pounce, before throwing himself in front of Drogba as the Ivorian looked to fire Chelsea ahead from close range.

Simonsen then denied the Chelsea number 11 with a fine low save as the Ivorian hit a dipping free kick towards the bottom corner of the goal, but the Stoke shot-stopper palmed the ball behind for yet another corner kick. Delap then cleared as Lampard looked to get on the end of Anelka's pass, and cross after cross from Malouda and Bosingwa were met by a firm clearing header from a Stoke defender. Ancelotti's answer was to bring on the forward-thinking Juliano Belletti in place of Mikel, who was finding himself venturing forward more often than not as the Blues found themselves under no defensive pressure at all from the hosts, who were truly penned inside their own half.

It was with a cruel sense of irony that Stoke were to be undone by a long throw-in. The Potters had made a name for themselves thanks to the long throws of Rory Delap, and had caused serious indecision amongst the Chelsea defence earlier in the game through their trademark ploy. But it was Belletti's throw into the box that ultimately won the match for Chelsea, as Essien collected the ball, played it to Anelka inside the penalty area, who in turn put the ball on a plate to Malouda who fashioned himself an opportunity with a quick touch and shot that Simonsen had no hope of keeping out. The away fans behind the goal were in raptures as the Chelsea winger celebrated, and the full-time whistle that followed moments later confirmed a very important victory.

Emotions were high amongst both sets of players - Stoke were heart-broken whilst Chelsea were elated. John Terry threw his shirt into the crowd, Frank Lampard hi-fived some of the Blues faithful and Florent Malouda was mobbed by Michael Essien and Didier Drogba as he danced in front of the travelling support. A long trip home awaited those in Chelsea blue, but did they care? Quite simply; no.

___________________________________________________________________

Stoke: Sorensen (Simonsen), Wilkinson, Shawcross, Abdoulaye Faye ©, Huth, Collins; Delap, Whitehead, Whelan; Beattie (Fuller), Kitson (Tuncay)

Chelsea: Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry ©, A Cole; Mikel (Belletti), Ballack (Essien), Malouda, Lampard; Kalou (Anelka), Drogba.

The TalkChelsea.net Man of the Match was Chelsea's number 11 - Didier Drogba

Stoke-DD11.jpg

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