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Sep 27, 2008

Stoke brutality crushed by Chelsea style

STOKE CITY 0-2 CHELSEA

You can either be a romanticist or a cynic when it comes to assessing Stoke City's debut season as a Premier League club.

Either you are in the camp of those who revel in the Potters unlikely rise from the ashes to mix it with the giants of English football once again, or you fear they will offer a less than desirable blueprint for Championship sides to follow in years to come.

Making the transition from the Football League to the big-time has proved too much for the majority of sides since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, with most faltering in their bid to try to match opponents who are simply blessed with more talent, ability and experience.

Stoke have a different plan though, and their no-nonsense manager Tony Pulis makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't have the class in his squad to take on the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool in a battle of the beautiful game.

With this in mind, he has vowed to stay loyal to the more brutal approach. Long throws and equally lengthy passing in the air are the order of the day at Stoke and it's a policy that has already reaped rewards. Their fine draw against Liverpool at Anfield last week confirmed they will be dogged opponents, while Aston Villa have also fallen foul to a style of football that wins fewer friends than it does points.

However, if they achieve their aim of survival this season, the danger must be that a return to 'old style' English football may be viewed as a decent option for all future Premier League newcomers. And such a thought sends a chilled shiver down the spine.

Stoke fans will not argue with such grizzly tactics as they are delighted to have the likes of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba coming to their impressive Britannia Stadium this season, yet those of us who are forced to endure their unpalatable version of football struggle to warm to their cause.

Giant target man Mamady Sidibe is a key figure in the Pulis master plan, yet they went into this game against the Premier League favourites without the injured Rory Delap, whose long throws have been the focus of so much attention during their first month of the season.

One hack in the press room cruelly described the much maligned Pulis as 'football's antichrist' before kick-off, yet The Insider took up his seat in the newly refurbished Stoke press box with an open mind as to the tactics the home side would attempt to offer up against a Chelsea side that included the fit again Didier Drogba from the off.

In what was always going to be a scrap between hard working battlers and proven world-class performers, Frank Lampard quickly asserted his authority as he grabbed hold of the midfield tussle from the off. Love him or hate him - and many will remain in the latter category whatever the Chelsea No.8 does - Lampard is a consistent performer at Premier League level and he makes this Blues side tick.

It was Chelsea pushing forward from the off as Michael Ballack and Drogba went close, yet it quickly became evident that Stoke were not going to be overawed by their 'A-list celebrity' opponents. With the Britannia Stadium faithful in good voice and clearly excited to be part of the Premier League extravaganza, Pulis' men set about their survival mission with relish.

You could see from the off that Stoke's game plan is straight out of the Sam Allardyce coaching manual. You may remember the 'glorious' days when Big Sam's Bolton side annoyed the hell out of the best teams in the land with frustrating little fouls (elbows in ribs/shirt pulls) and a set-play routine few could repel. Stoke were hoping such dastardly tactics would unsettle Chelsea in a first half an hour where the visitors played very much like the home side on the front foot.

Yet the opening goal duly arrived as full-back Jose Bosingwa moved forward and after a flowing passing movement, he finished with ease. The television replays suggested there was a hint of a handball as the Chelsea man burst into the box, but referee Martin Atkinson allowed the effort to count.

Stoke did their best to force their way back into the game after the break, but they never looked likely to score from open play and the points were secured when substitute Nicolas Anelka took advantage of some woeful defending to fire home after good work down the flank by the impressive Bosingwa.

Without needing to hit top gear, Chelsea had claimed a comfortable three points and Stoke boss Tony Pulis accepted his side were second best. ''I can have no complaints about the result or the performance of my team,'' he stated. ''Chelsea are a top class side and can hurt you in all areas and the only thing to take from it was that we competed and never gave up.

''Rory Delap has been a big part of what we have tried to do this season and we missed what he brings to the team. When you throw in the fact that we were up against top class opposition who passed the ball superbly well, it was always going to be a tough afternoon. This is not the first time we will come up against a better team this season.''

Stoke were struggling to get the ball off Chelsea in the final exchanges and Lampard so nearly confirmed their domination as he wasted a good chance late on, though Blues boss Luiz Felipe Scolari seemed content with his lot.

''We knew Stoke would play a long ball style with tall players and a physical approach,'' stated the Brazilian. ''Our plan was to counter that with good passing and movement and we did this quite well.

''There were some things we did not do so well and we will try to work on them at the training ground next week. The exciting part for me is there is so much for this team to improve on and we still find ourselves winning games on a regular basis.''

The final whistle was greeted with a rousing ovation from a Britannia Stadium faithful who appreciated the quality of the opponents who had graced their pitch on this sunny afternoon. The reality that their side are a long way out of their depth may dampen understandable enthusiasm sooner rather than later.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Jon Obi Mikel

Chelsea needed to win the midfield battle against Stoke's hard working, if limited, stars. Mikel is doing the Michael Essien role superbly just now and he did the groundwork that allowed the likes of Lampard and Ballack to shine.

WIDE THREAT: The most obvious impact Scolari has made this season comes with his fast moving full-backs. Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa were Chelsea's most potent weapons for much of the game and the opposition will need to find a way of holding them back this season.

STOKE VERDICT: The Potters were outclassed by Chelsea and for all their huff and puff, this was not the type of opposition likely to succumb to their agricultural tactics. Those of us who would hate to see English football dragged back into the dark ages have to hope Pulis' wrecking ball plan fails this season. They are, officially, a long ball team in every sense of the term.

CHELSEA VERDICT: Their passing and movement was so far ahead of Stoke, but they may have been made to look better than they are by the lack of class in front of them. Drogba looked well short of full match fitness, but the midfield duo of Lampard and Ballack were effective throughout. Chelsea look like being the team to beat this season.

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