PREMIER LEAGUE leaders Chelsea proved to be too hot to handle in front of the live television cameras on Monday evening as they recorded a 2-0 victory at the Britannia Stadium.
The triumph was no less than the West Londoners deserved having controlled long periods of the encounter against a spirited and determined Stoke side.
City’s hopes of thwarting the Blues’ title bid were dented after just two minutes as John Terry headed home the opening goal of the evening from Cesc Fabregas’ deep corner.
The hosts had half opportunities of their own to get back on level terms, with substitute Charlie Adam going closest, but the game was effectively put to bed 12 minutes from time with Fabregas somewhat fortuitously slicing home from eight-yards.
Hughes, who enjoyed three successful years at Stamford Bridge as a player, made two changes to his starting line-up ahead of the clash.
Austrian international Marko Arnautovic was recalled to the eleven at the expense of Mame Diouf, whilst Spanish defender Marc Muniesa partnered Ryan Shawcross at the back with Marc Wilson dropping to the bench.
The rest of the side remained unchanged from the one that recorded a point from the clash with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park nine days earlier.
Jose Mourinho named a strong side as he looked to establish a three-point cushion at the summit of the table, with the likes of Diego Costa, Fabregas, Willian and Eden Hazard all starting.
The evening couldn’t have got off to a worse start for the Potters as Terry stole a march on two Stoke defenders and met Fabregas’ centre with real aplomb to head the visitors in front.
One could have been two soon after when the lively Costa was freed through on goal by Fabregas, although Asmir Begovic did exceptionally well to close him down and force the hit-man to slot his strike wide of the target.
At the other end a succession of Bojan corners failed to cause any real problems to Terry and Gary Cahill at the heart of the Chelsea defence.
Having been frustrated by a determined and exceptionally well drilled Blues backline, the Potters were certainly going to have to make the most of their rare surges forward if they were to crack open Mourinho’s tight-knit backline.
Opportunities did present themselves to the home side however with the likes of Arnautovic and the industrious Jonathan Walters having efforts blocked when well positioned inside the penalty area.
Bojan was doing his utmost to ignite a Potters comeback, but even with his obvious talents, he found it difficult to overcome a powerful Blues midfield which possessed power, intelligence and tenacity.
Mourinho’s pre-match decision to sacrifice Brazilian ace Oscar for the more defensive Nemanja Matic was shrewd, and it denied Stoke’s Spanish star the opportunity to dictate the game in the manner he did against Arsenal in the previous home league fixture.
Mourinho’s side boast all the attributes needed to reign supreme in each of the four competitions they remain involved in going into the New Year, but even with that you never really thought a positive result was beyond the reach of Hughes’ team.
There was plenty of possession, and at times there was a fair bit of quality on show too, but frustratingly there never appeared to be a route through for Bojan and co, who were trying valiantly to breach the Blues rear-guard.
There was a period of Stoke control. Steven Nzonzi looked assured on the ball, whilst Geoff Cameron always offered an attacking threat with his direct approach.
Neat passages of play often culminated in dangerous situations, but each time the final ball let the home side down.
Substitutes Adam and Diouf added a different dimension to the team and it was Adam who very nearly made a significant impact on the game when he let rip a thumping effort from 25-yards that flew inches wide of Thibaut Courtois’ right hand post.
That effort raised the decibel levels inside the stadium as Stoke fans dreamed of a comeback that would have certainly eclipsed the memorable scenes from the win against Mourinho’s side little over 12-months earlier.
Sadly, any hopes of a fight-back were dashed when the Blues broke forward with pace and purpose. Hazard found Fabregas with a powerful pass, the Spaniard superbly controlled with the outside of his foot, wrong-footing Muniesa in the process, and then found the far corner of the net with his instep to sign, seal and deliver maximum spoils.
Oussama Assaidi forced Belgium international Courtois into a good save as the game reached its final moments, whilst Bojan very nearly grabbed a consolation goal for the hosts with a sublime effort that flew agonisingly wide from distance right on the full-time whistle.
In the end, a deserved win for Chelsea, yet a far from disappointing showing from the Potters who can take heart from their performance ahead of the festive double header against Everton and West Bromwich Albion.