STOKE CITY were unable to complete a Premier League double over title-chasers Chelsea in front of the live television cameras on Saturday evening as the hosts recorded a comfortable 3-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.
The Potters, who went into the game on the back of three successive top-flight victories, never looked likely to maintain that run as the Blues dictated the tempo of the game and elevated themselves back to the summit of the league-table.
Mohamed Salah thumped home the opening goal of the game shortly after the half hour mark before Frank Lampard doubled his side’s advantage in the second half, after tapping the ball into an empty net following Asmir Begovic’s initial save from the England star’s penalty.
Stoke’s second defeat in ten was sealed late on in the game as Willian produced a moment of magic to secure his side a valuable three points and keep their faint title hopes alive as the campaign draws towards its climax.
Prior to kick-off Mark Hughes was forced into making one change to his starting eleven following the withdrawal of Stephen Ireland through a sickness bug.
His absence paved the way for a return to the side for Honduran international Wilson Palacios, who last featured in the 4-1 triumph over Aston Villa last month.
With Wednesday night’s crucial Champions League encounter against Paris Saint Germain firmly in Jose Mourinho’s mind, it came as no surprise to see him rest the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar.
His eleven still boasted quality all over the field however, with recent £20 million acquisition Salah making his first start for the club, as part of a front four that also included Fernando Torres, Willian and Andre Schurrle.
The contrasting recent fortunes of both sides was evident during the opening ten minutes or so as the Potters dictated the early passages of play, but without really troubling the Blues rearguard.
Once the Blues were able to get a foothold on the game however, they began to assert their authority and look the team more likely to forge a breakthrough.
Begovic watched on as Spanish international Torres slammed an effort well wide of goal from 20-yards on the quarter hour mark, before Frank Lampard warmed his hands with a powerful strike of his own.
At the other end, Shawcross twice went agonisingly close to making contact with dangerous set-piece deliveries from Arnautovic, although on each occasion he was unable to trouble Petr Cech.
As it was, those half chances were as good as it got for the hosts during the opening 45 minutes as Mourinho’s troops began to display the same fluency and determination that had seen them move to the top of the Premier League prior to last weekend’s shock defeat at Crystal Palace.
World Cup bound Begovic spared the blushes of Erik Pieters with a brave block to deny Torres from six-yards after the Dutchman had inadvertently played him through on goal after attempting to cushion the ball back to the ‘keeper.
The Blues constant bombardment of the Potters penalty area was inevitably going to lead to an opening goal of the game, and in the 32nd minute, truth be told, it came as no surprise to see the deadlock broken.
Cesar Azpilicueta burst down the left, laid the ball back to January arrival Nemanja Matic, he placed a dangerous ball straight into the path of Salah, who showed no hesitation in driving his effort into the back of the net from 12-yards despite Begovic’s best efforts to deny him.
One could have become two shortly before the interval, but after being picked out superbly well by Willian, Branislav Ivanovic strayed narrowly offside before planting a thumping effort into the bottom corner of the net.
Hughes opted to make two changes during the break in an effort to reinvigorate his side, with the more attack-minded Adam replacing Palacios in midfield, whilst Geoff Cameron, who looked to be carrying a knock, departed for Andy Wilkinson.
It was ironically Wilkinson who gifted the home side the opportunity to double their advantage 15 minutes after the restart, needlessly bringing down the impressive Egyptian international Salah inside the penalty area.
Referee Lee Probert immediately pointed to the spot, with Lampard stepping up and putting the game beyond doubt at the second attempt after Begovic had blocked the midfielder’s poorly taken penalty.
Leading scorer Hazard was thrust into action soon after as Mourinho looked for his side to add more goals to their tally – the Belgian international replaced the largely ineffective German international Schurrle.
It wasn’t long before a third goal did arrive for the home side, and when it did there was absolutely nothing the visitors were able to do about it, as Brazilian star Willian ran through the middle of the pitch and curled a sublime effort home from 25-yards to round-off an impressive individual performance.
Hughes’ side huffed and puffed in an effort to salvage some late consolation from the game, but both Arnautovic and Adam were unable to worry Cech with their audacious strikes at goal.