Friday, 17 March 2017

Stoke City v Chelsea Match Preview (18/03/17): Blues Able to Navigate Tricky Away Day

When Ander Herrera got sent off in the first half of Monday’s FA Cup quarter final with Manchester United, it was fairly obvious from that point on that Chelsea were going to win the match.

An even contest prior to the Spaniard’s dismissal, his absence required a shape-shift from Jose Mourinho and, in time-honoured fashion, he attempted to park the bus by dropping human wrecking machine Marouane Fellaini in the middle of the park.

Happily, this Chelsea side is far too canny to be simply stopped from playing, and N’Golo Kante’s second half goal was just desserts for our dominance. In truth, but for an outstanding display from David de Gea in the United goal, the scoreline could have been a lot wider. If this was a boxing match the Red Devils corner would have thrown in the towel in the second period.

The reward for Chelsea’s excellence is a Wembley semi-final against none other than Tottenham; what a mouth-watering prospect that is.

But before then the Blues have a Premier League title to win, and that quest continues – as all good adventures do – in Stoke-on-Trent, and a trip to the bet365 Stadium to take on the Potteries outfit.

Mark Hughes’ men are one of only a handful of teams to truly cause us problems since switching to 3-4-3, and our 4-2 win at the Bridge back in December was genuinely hard fought. Peter Crouch caused the defence no end of problems – getting on the scoresheet himself and creating his side’s opener- and so the beanpole frontman will need to be better marshalled this time. Expect Gary Cahill to follow him around the pitch like an amorous dog on heat.

Stoke are a strange side, capable of resilience (0-0 with Manchester City) and mediocrity (0-4 at Tottenham) seemingly at will, so the Chelsea boys will need to be on their toes in what is yet another potential banana-skin on route to the Premier League crown.

Chelsea Team News

The only new injury worry for Antonio Conte is Victor Moses, who limped off late against Manchester United with a calf injury. The Daily Express is reporting that he faces three weeks on the sidelines, and how much truth there is in that remains to be seen, although we expect he won’t be pulling on a blue shirt this week regardless.

That’s a huge shame as Moses has been outstanding in his reinvented role at right wing back, and now Conte has two ways to cover for the Nigerian’s absence: the attacking way or the defensive.

He could opt to revert Pedro to right wing back and bring Willian in to the inside right role; that would be the attacking stance.

Or he could combat the threat of Crouch by bringing in either Kurt Zouma or John Terry to man-mark the 6ft 7in striker, and then shift Cesar Azpilicueta out to wing back. That is clearly the more defensive option.

It will be interesting to see which angle Conte takes, and while we suspect Zouma will come into the side there is every chance it could be Terry or Willian that deputises.

Stoke City v Chelsea Head to Head

The bet365 Stadium, or the Britannia as it used to be known, has not been a happy hunting ground for Chelsea. Three of their last four visits there in all competitions have ended in defeat, and their form in the past decade in Stoke reads W4 D2 L3. It’s not disastrous from the Blues’ perspective, although it is rather surprising.

But this is Chelsea 2.0 under Antonio Conte, with the boys playing as good as they have done in decades under the canny Italian. In some respects, we can discount all that has gone before, because Stoke won’t have confronted anything like this beast in blue this season (apart from the revers fixture, naturally!).

How the Match Will Be Won

Chelsea’s tactics rather speak for themselves these days; get the ball to Eden Hazard and let him do the rest.

That is an over-simplification of course, but the Belgian is in such scintillating form that he is more likely than anyone to be Chelsea’s match winner on Saturday.

Stoke are perennially strong at set pieces, so eliminating needless fouls in dangerous areas will be top of Conte’s checklist this week, and their main mode of attack will be aerial, diagonal balls into Crouch, who will look to bring Marko Arnautovic into the game as often as possible. With Azpilicueta perhaps moving to wing back, at least the Blues have the extra security of a natural defender to tackle the tricky Austrian winger.

Mark Hughes’ side are much in the same mould as their manager; gritty, determined and tough to beat. The Blues will have to be on their mettle, but if they show the form they have done of late then they should, realistically, get over the line.

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