Stoke City 3 Chelsea 2
Stephen Ireland’s back is decorated with a tattoo of angel’s wings, and sometimes he plays like one.
It was his pass that afforded fellow substitute Oussama Assaidi the chance to bamboozle Branislav Ivanovic before plundering a spectacular, dramatic winner at the Britannia Stadium.
But it was his audacious lead goal for 2-1, an exquisite effort from the edge of the area that was almost a nonchalant pass beyond Petr Cech’s reach, that signalled to Chelsea and Jose Mourinho that it might not be their day. A special one to frustrate the Special One.
Ireland can do that, and there are many who wish he were available once more to do that for his country. An enigma in exile he remains, but the man who once lit up Manchester City’s play is performing well for the manager who was his mentor there.
Mark Hughes has Ireland on loan for the season from Aston Villa — who swapped him for James Milner in the summer of 2010 — and the pair’s mutual respect looks like being a prime component of Stoke’s mission to establish a new identity.
“He is a good player, that’s the top and bottom of it,” said Hughes, who sent him on when Charlie Adam limped off after 20 minutes. “There’s never any doubt about Stephen’s ability.
“In the past, for whatever reasons, maybe managers have seen different things in him; maybe they felt he was the wrong player for their team or their club. But every time I have worked with Stephen, he is an outstanding talent and one that I will always try and involve him.”
Ireland once spent a holiday-free City summer on martial arts and punishing runs to be super fit — he was player of the year that 2008-09 season — and says that he believes in Hughes.
“It is reciprocal,” said the manager. “I believe in his talent and I will give him opportunities. He deserves that. It’s not a love-in; he knows he has to perform like everyone else and since he has come here that’s exactly what he has done.
“He has been a Premier League player for a long time and an accomplished one, he just lost his way for a couple of years. It wasn’t his fault in my view. It was not a question of his attitude or ability, it was just circumstances. We are just delighted that we have got him back on track and he has showed everyone what he can do.”
We all know what Chelsea can do. It’s the reason why many observers expected them to be slugging it out at the top with Manchester City, yet there is a flaw: the strikers lack the killer instinct of an Aguero or a Negredo.
Both Chelsea’s goals came from the impressive Andre Schurrle — “a winger”, shrugged Mourinho — and the German might have had another, a clip against the crossbar, minutes after his fine half-volley for 2-2. From Fernando Torres and his later replacement Demba Ba, zilch.
His frustration as Arsenal threaten to open up a significant lead at the top is clear, but the mellower Mourinho remains pragmatic: he will not undermine his misfiring strikers by criticising them now. How he must wish Wayne Rooney had not kissed and made up this summer.
“If players are coming [it is] probably at the end of the season, because it is more normal... I am not pushing for players now,” said Mourinho.
“For good and for bad, it is my squad. Of course, it is not the perfect squad, but it is my squad and I work with them until the last day. The strikers try the best they can, so I don’t know what to do.”
Chelsea were in complete charge until Cech’s hesitancy at a pre-interval corner offered Peter Crouch one of those scrappy goals at which he excels, and there remain question marks over a defence that also conceded three at Sunderland.
“In the last two games we’ve let too many goals in,” admitted Gary Cahill, who felt Chelsea should have had a free-kick before Ireland’s goal.
“That’s unlike us, and it’s down to individual mistakes. Not major mistakes. But away from home, we’ve got to keep it tight.”
STOKE: Begovic 6; Cameron 6, Shawcross 7, Wilson 7, Muniesa 6; Walters 6 (Assaidi 84), Whelan 7 (Palacios 86), Nzonzi 7, Arnautovic 7; Adam 5 (Ireland 20, 8); Crouch 6.
CHELSEA: Cech 6; Ivanovic 6, Cahill 7, Terry 7, Azpilicueta 6; Ramires 6, Mikel 6 (Lampard 69, 6); Schurrle 8 (Eto’o 69, 5), Mata 7, Hazard 7 — Torres 5 (Ba 59, 5).
Referee: Jon Moss 6.
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