Gary Cahill turns in captain's performance as Chelsea win at Stoke
Chelsea's relentless march towards the Premier League title continued at the bet365 Stadium, where a late Gary Cahill goal gave them a 2-1 victory over Stoke City in a predictably feisty encounter.
A lively first half saw Willian open the scoring for the visitors with a deft free-kick and the home side equalising via a debatable penalty conceded by Cahill. Referee Anthony Taylor had his work cut out to keep on top of some brutish Stoke tackling, with Chelsea striker Diego Costa involved in skirmish after skirmish, but in the end, skill won the day, and the Potters concluded the game with 10 men when Phil Bardsley was sent off for a second bookable offence.
Shorn of the services of Eden Hazard, Chelsea proved they can function admirably without the gifted playmaker. In Cahill, the Blues have a tailor-made replacement for John Terry. The defender's lion-hearted performance epitomised the never-say-die spirit of Antonio Conte's side.
Chelsea should have wrapped up the game long before they did. The fact that they had 64 percent possession and 20 shots will annoy Conte when he watches a replay of the game.
Manager rating out of 10
9 -- Conte is the only manager in the top flight to have used all the substitutions available to him, and once again he did so to great effect against Stoke. Having struggled to get the required cut through with his template 3-4-3, the Italian's introduction of Cesc Fabregas and switch to 4-2-3-1 gave Chelsea the added impetus they needed. Then the later fresh legs of Ruben Loftus Cheek and Kurt Zouma gave the Blues energy when they needed it to close out the game.
Player ratings (1-10, 10 = best, players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Thibaut Courtois, 6 -- Had little involvement in the game until facing Jon Walters' penalty. Not much to do thereafter largely thanks to the diligence of the defence in front of him.
DF Cesar Azpilicueta, 7 -- Stifled the threat of Stoke striker Saido Berahino and was always well-positioned to ensure Courtois was never exposed to the probing runs of Marco Arnautovic.
DF David Luiz, 8 -- Stood his ground in the face of some robust challenges, particularly with Walters, and played the ball out of defence well, linking up neatly with Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante.
DF Gary Cahill, 9 -- A true captain's performance from Cahill, who put in a solid shift in defence. Could be considered unlucky when Walters went to ground far too easily under his "challenge," the incident that led to the penalty from which the Stoke man scored. Found space in the home box to rattle home Chelsea's winner and duly celebrated in fine style with the visiting supporters. A big goal from an immense player who sadly continues to attract unnecessary criticism from some fans.
MF Victor Moses, 6 -- Struggled to make an impression in the first half and was pegged back by Ramadan Sobhi for much of the contest. Withdrawn in favour of Fabregas when Conte adjusted his set-up to a back four.
MF Nemanja Matic, 6 -- Shielded Chelsea's backline effectively but didn't offer much in the way of creativity when winning the ball in midfield.
MF N'Golo Kante, 7 -- Worked tirelessly alongside Matic to ensure that Chelsea maintained the lion's share of possession.
MF Marcos Alonso, 7 -- Kept the left channel under control defensively and capably found his way forward and into scoring positions. Denied a first-half goal from open play when Stoke keeper Lee Grant made a fine save. Also hit the bar with a well struck free-kick midway through the second period.
FW Pedro, 6 -- Found it difficult to create any space to get in behind Stoke's back line, but he did so late in the game. Could have scored but saw a fierce shot clear the bar by a couple of inches.
FW Willian, 8 -- Handed a rare league start in place of the injured Eden Hazard, Willian served up a typical piece of Samba-style free kick wizardry when tricking the Stoke defence and Grant into thinking he was going to cross the ball instead of firing at the goal. Always full of running, Willian had the measure of Erik Pieters and was a constant menace, particularly when Conte switched to 4-2-3-1.
FW Diego Costa, 8 -- Never too far away from the cut and thrust of Stoke's skulduggery, Costa spent the afternoon duelling with Ryan Shawcross, Bruno Martins Indi and Phil Bardsley. The Chelsea striker gave no quarter, and despite being booked as early as the 17th minute, he continued with his battles and importantly drew attention away from creative teammates.
MF Cesc Fabregas, 7 -- Immediately provided Chelsea with a different dimension when entering the fray on 70 minutes. Delivered the corner ball which eventually found its way to Cahill to score the winner.
MF Ruben Loftus Cheek, NR -- Replaced Matic late on and might have scored when played in by Pedro but saw his shot saved by Grant.
DF Kurt Zouma, NR -- Replaced Willian after Cahill scored and added weight to Chelsea's defence.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco