Chelsea stumble towards Premier League title line

Chelsea 2 Stoke City 1: Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin, but if the American were alive today he might add Jose Mourinho’s third Premier League title to that list.

Chelsea stumble towards Premier League title line

Chelsea are not there yet, having stuttered through 2015 with some indifferent form and results, and Arsenal’s remarkable run has suddenly put them into second place.

But it would take a tumble of Devon Loch proportions for the Blues to fail now, with a seven-point lead, a game in hand and just eight matches remaining, half of them against relegation contenders.

As Mourinho pointed out, his team need just five wins and a draw to make certain, even if their challengers gain maximum points.

So Chelsea will win their first title for five years, a decade after Mourinho brought them their first championship in half a century.

Yet there are still nagging doubts about this side, who at one stage were considered capable of going a whole season unbeaten.

With the notable exception of Eden Hazard, who is playing at a level above his peers at the moment, Chelsea are functional rather than flamboyant, their other flair players largely reined in by Mourinho’s mantra of results first, entertainment second.

They know how to win, certainly, but do not have admirers lining up to praise their style. It says it all that the one moment of magic everyone was talking about after they ground out another attritional victory, against Stoke City on Saturday, was Charlie Adam’s wonder goal on the stroke of half time.

The Scot may look like a pub footballer, struggling to keep up with the pace, but he possesses the sweetest left foot and used it to spectacular effect in lofting the ball 65 yards into the net when he spotted Thibaut Courtois off his line.

It was no fluke, as Adam has scored from similar distances in reserve matches, friendlies and in training. But to do it against one of the world’s top keepers was something special and left everyone who was present buzzing.

Yet the same cannot be said about Chelsea’s goals, one a soft penalty, the winner a tap-in from Loic Remy after a blunder by Stoke’s goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, who was otherwise excellent.

Stamford Bridge is notoriously quiet, with even Mourinho remarking on the lack of atmosphere, and it was only in the closing minutes that fans started singing, mostly about their imminent title success. With their favourite player Diego Costa limited to a brief substitute appearance of 11 minutes, in which he aggravated the hamstring injury that may end his season prematurely, the fans had only the skills of Hazard to enthral them.

While Costa has gone off the boil, with only two goals in his past 10 games, and Cesc Fabregas a shadow of his early season self, Hazard has stepped up in terms of performances and goals, with four in his past five games for Chelsea.

John Terry sums up his importance. “He has been excellent, our best player this year. When you are looking for a little bit of something extra, a bit of magic, he’s the one who steps up and manages to create something.”

Mourinho praised Hazard and was quick to include Willian too, with the Brazilian also stretching Stoke’s otherwise solid defence. “They were both fabulous, did everything,” he said.

Mourinho has no doubts about his side. “We believe in ourselves. We have strong mentalities. This is a difficult moment but we can handle it. We are ready to play, we are ready to fight, to suffer together. We are ready for everything. We need five wins and one draw.”

Mark Hughes sees the winning mentality at one of his former clubs. “They know how to see out games, what it takes to win,” he said. “When they get in a winning position it is difficult to overcome them — they stop momentum, they draw fouls, break the game up. They will win the title, I am sure of that.”

CHELSEA (4-2-3-1): Courtois 6; Ivanovic 6, Cahill 6, Terry 6, Azpilicueta 7; Matic 7, Fabregas 6; Willian 7, Oscar 5, Hazard 8; Remy 6.

Subs: Costa for Oscar 46, Drogba for Costa 56, Cuadrado for Remy 62.

STOKE (4-4-2): Begovic 8; Cameron 6, Shawcross 7, Wollscheid 7, Wilson 6; Ireland 6, Nzonzi 7, Whelan 6, Adam 7; Diouf 6, Walters 6.

Subs: Arnautovic for Diouf 62, Crouch for Ireland 78, Pieters for Adam 78.

Referee: J Moss.

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