THE FIREWORKS poignantly lit up the sky over the Britannia Stadium on Saturday evening as the Potters celebrated a second successive triumph over the reigning Barclays Premier League Champions.
Mark Hughes’ side put the Blues to the sword in the Capital One Cup less than two weeks earlier, courtesy of an enthralling victory on penalties, and they repeated those heroics in front of the live SKY television cameras on Saturday evening.
This time it was Marko Arnautovic who was the toast of the Potteries after his sublime second half acrobatic effort inflicted an unprecedented seventh league defeat upon Jose Mourinho’s multi-million pound array of stars.
The forward produced an outstanding finish down to Asmir Begovic’s right shortly after the interval following exceptional work down the right from the man of the match Xherdan Shaqiri and former Chelsea defender Glen Johnson.
The victory was deserved, undoubtedly, but the Potters were made to work almightily hard to secure their second home league victory of the season as Chelsea, minus the charismatic Mourinho, threw everything they had at the Potters.
Jack Butland, the star of the penalty shootout win last month, was again in fine fettle as he thwarted both Diego Costa and Ramires during the first half, whilst on the one occasion that he was beaten he watched with relief as Pedro’s curling strike cannoned back off the post.
Stoke looked balance, they looked determined and they boasted the quality needed to come out of these type of encounters victorious.
Shaqiri, a £12m capture from Inter Milan in the summer, was sublime – the winger oozed class every time he was involved in the action and on numerous occasions followed up his crowd-pleasing trickery with stunning accurate deliveries.
In fact it was he who delivered a pin-point centre for Jonathan Walters, who earlier in the day penned a new long-term deal, but the Republic of Ireland international looped his header over Begovic, but also over the bar.
It was never going to be a night for the faint hearted – surely Chelsea couldn’t crumble in North Staffordshire once more, even without the influence of Mourinho on the sidelines.
Shawcross gave as much as he got from Costa as the pair locked horns early doors – carrying on the battle from the recent League Cup fixture – in what was his third successive start for the Club following a five-month injury lay-off.
He was colossal, as was Philipp Wollscheid, who arguably produced his most polished display in a Stoke shirt since arriving on an initial loan deal from German side Bayer Leverkusen in January.
It’s somewhat harsh to mention individuals as every Potters player on display produced a stunning performance.
Both sides had thrown punches during the first half as they looked for a knockout blow with Ramires forcing Butland into a superb tip over the bar midway through the half before Costa broke free inside the 18-yard box and lashed an effort across goal only for the stopper to save with his feet.
At the other end, Begovic, who departed the Britannia Stadium earlier in the year, produced his most telling contribution of the game – getting down superbly well to block Johnson’s goal-bound left footed strike.
The first goal was always likely to be pivotal, and that is how it proved.
Shaqiri produced an exquisite through ball to cut open John Terry and Baba Rahman at the back, Johnson took one touch and dinked the ball into the box, it evaded Walters, but not Arnautovic, who scissor-kicked the ball home, despite Begovic’s best attempts to keep it out.
The Stoke supporters were absolutely delirious. Chelsea fans were despondent. Their frustrations weren’t shared by their players though as they continued to press forward in a bid to revive their fortunes.
Pedro lashed a superb effort of the foot of the post, before Nemanja Matic, one of three changes to the Blues side from the one that faced the Potters last time, failed to make contact with a delightful Hazard ball across goal.
Hughes’ men were always a threat on the counter and truth be told the game could have been put to bed before the Blues thought they had been handed a late reprieve courtesy of Loic Remy, who rounded Butland only to then slice wide with the goal at his mercy.
Geoff Cameron, Ibrahim Afellay and Mame Diouf were all handed late cameo roles as the Welshman looked to use his substitutions effectively, and all three played key roles during the final stretches of the pulsating encounter.
A trademark counter-attack in the third minute of stoppage time should have culminated in a second goal for the hosts, but after breezing past two Chelsea defenders Arnautovic opted to go alone rather than teeing up either Afellay or Diouf, who were both open with the goal gaping.
That missed opportunity, together with a wayward Walters effort moments earlier, could have been catastrophic had Johnson not brilliantly diverted Hazard’s strike inches wide of the post right at the death.