Traore scores without Costa but Chelsea slip to Stoke draw
Chelsea's bid to gatecrash the top four in the Premier League took a knock following a 1-1 draw at home to Stoke on Saturday.
The Blues, unbeaten in 12 under Guus Hiddink, looked to be on course for all three points, but Bertrand Traore's sublime first half strike was cancelled out by a Mame Biram Diouf header five minutes from time.
With one eye on Wednesday's win-or-bust Champions League round of 16 second leg against Paris Saint-Germain, Hiddink opted to bench Cesc Fabregas and limit Eden Hazard's game time, but with Diego Costa absent through injury, Chelsea lacked the snap, crackle and pop that Costa and Fabregas have been bringing them.
Chelsea missed Costa, but the magnificent first touch Traore displayed when drawing the ball away from Stoke's defence on the edge of the penalty area prior to crashing it into the top corner was worth the admission money on its own.
Chelsea had goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to thank for a series of world-class saves that kept Stoke at bay for the majority of the game. However, the Belgian failed to deal adequately with a Xherdan Shaqiri cross, punching the ball as far as Diouf, who then headed into an empty net to give the visitors a share of the points.
Player Ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Thibaut Courtois, 7 -- Might have been Chelsea's man of the match, as saves from Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic, Ibrahim Afellay and Bojan underlined the Belgian's status as the Blues' No.1 keeper. But his dreadful error of judgement presented Diouf with an open goal to head the ball into.
DF Cesar Azpilicueta, 7 -- Another composed, gritty and well-disciplined performance at right full-back. Got forward well and served up a wonderful early cross for Traore that deserved a better finish.
DF Branislav Ivanovic, 6 -- Dependable enough at centre-back, but was occasionally exposed by Diouf and had Gary Cahill to thank for covering lapses of defensive awareness.
DF Gary Cahill, 7 -- Provided a greater degree of security than Ivanovic. Mobility and awareness were put to good use both in defence and attack when posing a constant threat at Chelsea set pieces.
DF Baba Rahman, 6 -- Grew into the game after a hesitant start and patrolled the left flank with a reasonable authority until the closing minutes when a lapse of concentration contributed to Stoke's equaliser.
MF John Obi Mikel, 6 -- Mikel's rare goal against PSG has clearly given the Nigeria international confidence he can repeat the feat more often, but he was guilty of a wayward attempt to beat Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland and left Nemanja Matic exposed.
MF Nemanja Matic, 7 -- Architect of Traore's excellent strike, there was a mobility to Matic's play that was redolent of the Serbia international at his best last season. With Mikel at times shirking his defensive midfield responsibilities, Matic needed to be on point to deal with Stoke's probing play. Acquitted himself well.
MF Willian, 7 -- Indefatigable as ever, Willian continued to strengthen his case for being Chelsea's player of the year with another tigerish performance. A constant threat when on the ball, he was denied a goal when Butland saved a fierce drive.
MF Oscar, 6 -- Largely anonymous from a creative point of view, Oscar's key contribution was tackling back and assisting Matic and Mikel in defensive midfield.
MF Eden Hazard, 6 -- Several mazy runs were not enough to convince fans his heart was truly in this contest. Afforded an hour's play by Hiddink, Hazard was unable to make a telling contribution and his withdrawal shortly after the hour mark was of little consequence to Chelsea or the outcome of the game.
FW Bertrand Traore, 8 -- A goal of the highest quality sealed a fine performance for the youngster, who continues to repay the faith Hiddink has placed in him. With greater experience, Traore might have made more of the opportunities that came his way, but criticism would be harsh on a player who has already established himself as a firm favourite with Chelsea supporters.
MF Ruben Loftus-Cheek, 7 -- Replaced Hazard for the final 30 minutes and got involved in the game, mixing it with Stoke's defenders and trying his luck with an attempt on goal.
FW Loic Remy, 4 -- Replaced Traore on 68 minutes but played with little conviction. Mikel getting further forward than the France international as Chelsea chased a second goal summarised a poor contribution.
MF Cesc Fabregas, N/R -- Replaced Matic for the final 10 minutes of the game. Fresh legs and creativity might have yielded more with a longer cameo.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco