It was one of those matches. No-one cared about the scoreline, no-one would have been particularly bothered if it was a scrappy performance. The key was the win. The key was to keep the pressure on Arsenal for the lucrative Champions League spot. And the key was unlocked by Didier Drogba, who became the first African to score 100 Premier League goals. Some feat, and some way to celebrate turning 34 tomorrow. Roberto Di Matteo could not have asked more from his men in his first Premier League match in charge. Stoke did not only park the bus but the entire station. Several formation changes did the trick for RDM, who was brave enough to make a tactical substitution in the first half. Statistics and numbers were aplenty leading up to this match: Chelsea’s average age was 28.5, but it was the number three – three points – at the end of the day which mattered.
With the Napoli match in mind, Di Matteo made a number of changes. There was no starting places for Chelsea’s two most influential players thus far: Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge. Torres was dropped in favour of Drogba too, in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Kalou and Ramires on the flanks. John Terry and Ashley Cole came back from injury.
From the off, Chelsea’s intentions were clear. Ryan Shawcross could only misguide a header onto the roof of their net. From the ensuing corner, Ivanovic headed over, wasting a good opportunity.
But the signs of intent were clear. Gary Cahill decided to have a pop at goal himself, forcing a fabulous diving save by Begovic. Ramires then came within a whisker of giving Chelsea the lead, nearly getting onto the end of a Kalou cross.
But Stoke then had a great opportunity, against the run of play. Walters ran against Terry, but when the former England captain fell, it was simply a case of Walters beating Cahill to fire a shot at Cech. Terry’s England defensive partner got in a sublime block, and when he forced Walters wide, the striker could only punt wide: chance gone, and relief all around. This England partnership proved to be working so far.
But the turning point came on 24 minutes. Stoke had frustrated Chelsea all match, but their strategies were to be tested to the limit when Ricardo Fuller, starting his first Premier League game for over a year, inexplicably and thuggishly stamped on Ivanovic’s stomach. The Serbian needed attention, and Marriner sent off the striker for a cowardly act.
The opportunity was there for Chelsea now: 11 versus 10. Terry’s downward header clipped the crossbar, and there was a real optimism that Chelsea would make the break-through soon. Di Matteo sensed an opening also, and made a smart decision taking off a holding midfielder, and in Meireles’ place, utilising the craft of Mata, with the formation now a more attacking 4-1-4-1.
On 40 minutes Chelsea hit the woodwork again. Ivanovic was granted plenty of space all match and when the ball fell kindly to him from a poor Shawcross clearance, his thunderous shot rebounded off the crossbar and went out.
Frustratingly for Chelsea, the half fizzed out. But the fans were not to be disappointed in the half-time break, all-time goalscorer Bobby Tambling came onto the pitch to thank all well-wishers after his recent stay in hospital.
RDM went for more attacking impetus, Ivanovic off and Luiz, for the first time this season, played in a right-back role. But the half really failed to get going, despite shots from John Terry, Lampard and Luiz. Stoke were soon to tire and Drogba had a chance from a free-kick, magnificently clawed away by Begovic.
RDM went for a third substitution, Mikel off and Sturridge on, Ramires now deeper and Mata playing more as a number 10, in a 4-3-1-2 formation. And the move paid off. Soon after, Mata found space in the middle and disguised a pass to Drogba. The Ivorian rounded the keeper and prodded home, to send the crowd into delirium.
But the match was not done and dusted there. Chelsea really ought to have put some daylight between them and Stoke, but they failed to build on the momentum. Thankfully, Stoke never pieced together any momentum of their own.
Wilkinson tried to lob Cech from 40 yards out in a hopeful attempt, but Cech was not to be beaten today.
There was another chance of Begovic being beaten, however. Unfortunately, Mata saw his free-kick hit the post and bounce out.
The full-time whistle blew, and Roberto Di Matteo can reflect on a good afternoon, moving Chelsea level on points with rivals Arsenal. Some more results like this and not only will Chelsea be playing Champions League football next season, Roberto Di Matteo might be the man leading them into the competition.