Thibaut Courtois says Chelsea will battle to the end

Chelsea 1 Stoke 1: Ten points adrift of the top four despite a 12-match unbeaten run in the Premier League under Guus Hiddink, Chelsea are beginning to realise just how much damage was done to their season before Jose Mourinho was sacked - and know only victory over PSG on Wednesday can really rescue it in any meaningful way.
Thibaut Courtois says Chelsea will battle to the end

There’s a strange lack or tension or excitement at Stamford Bridge these days as Chelsea bid to stitch back together a season which was so painfully torn apart in the early part of the campaign.

Hiddink has done everything asked of him - more you could argue - but the low-key atmosphere on Saturday against Stoke and the late goal from Mame Biram Diouf which denied the home team victory made it all feel rather meaningless - especially coming straight after the Tottenham-Arsenal match in which the title as well as local rivalry was at stake.

Chelsea were somnolent in the first half with the exception of a stunning opening goal from Bertrand Traore, narrowly second best in the finale and adequately competitive in between; in fact they looked every inch a team saving the real fireworks for a bigger match on Wednesday.

Saturday’s result all but ends any hope of Chelsea finishing in the top four - Hiddink admitted as much with nine games still to go - and so almost everything hinges on overturning a 2-1 first-leg deficit against PSG at Stamford Bridge this week.

There is also the FA Cup of course – a quarter-final away to Everton on Saturday is a tough but winnable tie - but despite Chelsea’s proud history in that particular competition even a Wembley final wouldn’t be enough to say the season has been saved; only a Champions League trophy can do that.

“We have to fight back against PSG on Wednesday and we’ll do our best to do that,” insisted goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. “I think we are doing very well in 2016. We are scoring more and working hard to concede less, so confidence is obviously better.

“Sometimes you have a bad season and you just have to fight back - and I think that’s what we’re doing. We will fight until the last game to finish as high as possible but we know it’s not possible to go too high now.

“Some of the teams around us have to play each other so perhaps we could reach the top five or six. We’ll see; but the priority now is the Champions League. It’s clear our trophy goals are the Champions League and FA Cup.”

The good news for Chelsea is that influential striker Diego Costa, who missed the Stoke game after straining tendons in training 24 hours earlier, is likely to be fit to face the French champions; the bad news sees John Terry, still recovering from a hamstring problem, not yet ready to join the fray. The latter is a problem, not at centre-back where Branislav Ivanovic has been deputising ably, but at left-back where Baba Rahman has stepped in, with Cesar Azpilicueta moving to replace Ivanovic at right-back.

It’s never nice to criticise a young player but the bottom line is that Baba isn’t good enough for the Premier League yet, let alone to face Angel Di Maria in the Champions League; and that’s a worry. His lack of positional awareness and even his basic technique were in question against Stoke, who thoroughly deserved their point in the end.

Traore, playing up front in place of Costa, opened the scoring with a ferocious drive from outside the box, having run across the area and back again before unleashing his shot. But Diouf replied after 85 minutes, heading home after Courtois palmed a Xherdan Shaqiri cross straight to him.

Stoke, who also endured a slow start to the campaign, and a mid-season slump, are beginning to look like a team going places again. New signing Giannelli Imbula, for instance, was hugely impressive in the second half - a holding midifelder with the energy to also get forward, even in the dying minutes. A bench featuring Bojan shows their strength in depth.

Don’t rule out Stoke ‘doing a Leicester’ and making a serious challenge for the top five next season - they already sit seventh this year with an outside chance of catching those above them. But, and it seems strange to say it considering their record in 2016 and the club’s recent history, it’s pretty unrealistic for Chelsea to do the same.

There’s only one way into the Champions League for Chelsea next season – and that’s to win this year’s trophy.

CHELSEA:

Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 6, Ivanovic 6, Cahill 7, Baba 5; Mikel 6, Matic 6 (Fabregas 82; 6); Oscar 6, Willian 6, Hazard 6 (Loftus-Cheek 64; 6); Traore 6 (Remy 68; 6).

Subs not used:

Begovi, Pato, Miazga, Clarke-Salter

STOKE CITY:

Butland 6; Cameron 6, Wollscheid 6, Muniesa 6, PIeters 7; Whelan 6 (Bojan 74; 7), Imbula 8; Shaqiri 7, Affellay 6, Arnautovic 7 (Ireland 88); Diouf 6 (Joselu 86).

Subs not used:

Haugaard, Walter, Teixeira, Crouch.

Referee:

Mark Clattenburg

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