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Apr 5, 2014

A bridge too far for Stoke at Chelsea

Prior to Saturday, I had written on my blog and Twitter about how any loss at Chelsea should be viewed in context of the run Stoke have had over the last couple of months.

Whilst I urged fans not to react too hastily over a defeat, after Stoke's 3-0 setback, I’m finding it difficult myself to sweep things under the carpet entirely.

The loss was only the Potters' second in the last 10 games. The other was at Man City and both they and Jose Mourinho's side finished the game top of the league. Chelsea were a wounded beast having suffered back-to-back losses so Stoke were always going to face a backlash from a squad filled with quality. That said, it transpired that the men in red and white were their own worst enemy with the sloppiest of sloppy play from front to back, not dissimilar, in fact, to their performance against Hull the week before.

They were simple mistakes and ones that looked like they came from tired legs as well as minds. Erik Pieters picked up where he left off last week and put in quite arguably his poorest showing for Stoke yet and became more and more of a liability as the game went on. I know he has been carrying a knock, but his last two performances have been well below par and to the side’s detriment, and if the injury is a problem for him, then Marc Muniesa should be drafted in, especially now that the side are safe.

On the opposite flank Geoff Cameron looked tired, his decision making, tracking and tackling nowhere near the standard fans know he is capable of. He is another who is playing through an injury, and again, if that is partly to blame for some of his performances of late, then he should be taken out of the firing line.

That said, when Andy Wilkinson is the next player in line for that spot, the argument to keep Cameron at right back suddenly gains more traction. I love Wilko and it’s great to see a local lad play for the club but he is woefully limited; his “tackle” for Chelsea's penalty was equalled only by Jermaine Pennant’s attempt against Everton; it was awful.

It was painful to see such an ill-advised lunge and everyone knew what would happen next and, as for Wilkinson's “crossing” ... I question the logic of offering him a new contract. It serves no purpose at all. In fact, it should be clear to Mark Hughes that his main priority in the summer (after replacing Peter Crouch) is to get a new right-back or two in to free up Cameron to take a more central role in midfield and, more importantly, ensure a fit for purpose solution is in place on the right side of defence.

- Delaney: Three Things - Chelsea vs. Stoke - Highlights (U.S. only): Chelsea vs. Stoke

In front of that back four Stoke have a couple more problems to solve, too: Wilson Palacios and Charlie Adam. Palacios is one of the most frustrating players I can remember seeing in recent times. I was so excited at his arrival from Tottenham, more so than I was about Crouch, but he looks barely a shadow of his former self. The worst thing about the Honduran international is that he gives fans hope every now and then with a good performance only to revert to a plodding, sloppy type on his next appearance.

Getting Palacios a deal elsewhere and freeing up his wage in the summer should be high on Hughes’ to-do list and, as regular readers will know, I think much the same about Adam too; when the goals dry up he is a liability and none more so than when he throws his weight around. There were a few instances of poor challenges again yesterday that ordinarily you might be able to explain away but when they keep happening to the same player you have to question the player’s attitude.

All credit to Chelsea though, they are a formidable side and worked tirelessly closing down the Stoke midfield, and that’s where the game was won. Confidence has been high over the last month or two but the run seemed to have caught up with the players and as soon as that self-assurance dropped, they reverted back to their raw ability and sadly panicked in possession. Hopefully they will get an earful as well as an arm around the shoulder from the manager next week and be buoyed at the prospect of returning to the Britannia to take on a struggling Newcastle side.

Hughes and Stoke are still on course to break a number of records this season, but being the first team to beat Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League won’t be one of them. Saturday marked the end of a magnificent run and next week’s game offers the opportunity to start the next one.