CHARLIE ADAM’S sensational 50th career goal wasn’t enough to claim his side a first ever Premier League point at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening as the Blues extended their lead at the summit of the table to seven points.
The Potters produced by far their most competitive showing in West London and had looked on course to frustrate Jose Mourinho’s side when Adam launched an incredible strike from inside his own half after Eden Hazard had fired his side ahead with a coolly taken penalty.
The Belgian winger calmly capitalised from the spot after the referee correctly adjudged German international Philipp Wollscheid to have brought down Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas inside the 18-yard box.
Mark Hughes’ side were well and truly in the game prior to and following Loic Remy’s match winning strike on the hour mark, with Steven Nzonzi going closest to securing a draw with a superb long distance effort the hit the post.
Back-to-back defeats prior to the recent international break and a return to fitness to several of the Welshman’s first-team players culminated in the manager making three changes to his side, with the three W’s all making their return to the eleven.
Wollscheid replaced Erik Pieters in the backline, Glenn Whelan came in for Austrian maverick Marko Arnautovic whilst Jonathan Walters, with a protective mask in place, was chosen ahead of Peter Crouch.
Mourinho sprung a surprise of his own as he stuck to his pre-match press conference words and named leading scorer Diego Costa amongst the substitutes, instead preferring to start with former Queens Park Rangers frontman Remy.
As was to be expected the Blues looked determined not to let slip of their cushion at the top of the table, especially given the fact that two of their three title challengers, Manchester United and Arsenal, had already recorded victories of their own earlier in the day.
They displayed power, panache and penetration as they looked to find an early breakthrough in this encounter, just as they did in the reverse fixture at the Britannia Stadium back in December when John Terry’s second minute header set his side on the road to a 2-0 triumph.
Bosnian international Asmir Begovic had to be at his very best to deny several of Mourinho’s stars early on – reacting well to fingertip a deflected effort off the line and then getting down superbly well to collect Hazard’s goal-bound drive.
Brazilian star Oscar, who netted in a 1-0 Chelsea win at Stamford Bridge last season, will feel aggrieved not to have netted the opener after skewing wide from 9-yards when he looked to be in two minds whether to shoot or tee up the lively Hazard.
At the other end Nzonzi went agonisingly close to giving his side a shock lead with a clever curling effort from 25-yards that surprised Thibaut Courtois, before dipping agonisingly over the bar with the Belgium number one well and truly beaten.
Hughes’ tactics, in tandem with his players determination to chase, hassle and harry their more illustrious opponents was serving well, and the home supporters were growing increasingly frustrated as the half wore on.
Disappointingly, and frustratingly, those supporters were given something to cheer about when Wollscheid, arguably rashly, lunged forward in a bid to block Fabregas’ effort, but the Spaniard cleverly flicked the ball away and went down under the German’s momentum.
Hazard stepped up, and true to the ever growing reputation of him, waited until the very last second and slipped the ball to Begovic’s right, just as the Bosnian had made a move to his left.
A goal up, and with all the momentum, surely Chelsea, the overwhelming title favourites, would go on and add several more goals to their tally?
Well, not quite, as the Potters and Adam in-particular had something major to say before the half came to an end.
The Scottish midfielder has previously attempted the seemingly impossible from inside his own half on several occasions throughout his spell in the Potteries, but not on a grander stage could his opportunism come off in such scintillating style.
He spotted Courtois, largely regarded as one of the very best goalkeepers in the world, on the edge of his own penalty area, and with no run up whatsoever, launched a thunderous left foot drive up and over the backtracking ‘keeper from 59 yards and stunned every supporter inside the stadium.
Hughes’ half-time addressing was no far more different than it might have been, given Adam’s stupendous contribution to the game in the dying embers of the first half.
The goal breathed fresh life into the visitors, and breathed panic into Mourinho, who in turn introduced his £50 million summer arrival, Spanish international Costa, from the bench at the expense of Oscar.
Stoke had the Blues rocked with the midfield quartet of Whelan, Nzonzi, Adam and the impressive Stephen Ireland dictating the tempo of the opening 15 minutes of the second period.
Mame Diouf, the lone striker, very nearly made contact with a dangerous Ireland ball across the box, when had he managed to do so then he would have been celebrating in the same manner that he did when he scored the winner against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in August.
Just as the Potters were gaining a real foothold on proceedings, Begovic, the saviour for his side during the opening 30 minutes of the encounter, made an uncharacteristic mistake by rolling the ball out to the un-expecting Nzonzi.
Both Willian and Eden Hazard were privy to this, with the former nipping in front of the Frenchman, driving forward and squaring to the unmarked Remy, who was presented with by far the simplest goal of his career thus far.
Still, Stoke weren’t to surrender!
Hughes thrust Arnautovic into the action, with Ireland making way, and the Austrian, who scored for his country in a crucial European Qualifier earlier in the week, looked lively and dangerous as he helped his side ask very serious questions of Chelsea.
In fact, it was his lay-off just seconds after arriving on to the field that laid the ball on for Nzonzi, who side-footed a strike from an acute angle beyond the reach of Courtois and off the outside of the post, just as he looked set to turn away in celebration.
The travelling army of Potters supporters were in fine voice as they helped their side to press and search for an avenue back into the tightly contested encounter.
As the visitors moved forward gaps were always going to be left at the back, thus giving the shaking home side opportunities to wrap the win up and ascertain a comfortable lead between themselves and the chasing pack at the top of the league.
Begovic blocked Hazard’s thumping effort midway through the half, before producing an incredible double save to deny Remy from five-yards, after the French forward found himself open inside the 6-yard box after Hazard had cleverly picked him out.
Both Pieters and Crouch were introduced from the bench late on as the brave and impressive Potters looked to have one final say on the outcome of the game, but the Blues held on to claim a massive victory in their bid to lift the crown come May.