THAT is the end of this section of questioning then, as Chelsea’s late show at the Britannia Stadium surely proves they have enough character in this squad to battle through their Fifa transfer ban and sustain a challenge for the championship this term.
Any doubts over how Carlo Ancelotti and his men would react in their first match since discovering they will not be allowed to enter the transfer market until 2011 were swept under the carpet as Florent Malouda produced a driven left footed shot beyond Steve Simonsen four minutes into injury time.
The only question left to answer this term is whether they will cope when they lose the likes of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel to the African Cup of Nations in January. That is not a worry for this moment though, as Chelsea are too busy reflecting on a 100% start to the season. The record of five wins from five is better than Jose Mourinho managed in either of his title winning season at Stamford Bridge in 2005 or 2006.
That gives the club increased belief that they are on track to push Manchester United all the way to the line this campaign, and French midfielder Malouda hopes the display at Stoke, where they had been trailing to a goal from Abdoulaye Faye, has given them a psychological boost.
“You could see it was a good win collectively from the way we celebrated,” he said.
“Our aim this year was to try to win these kind of games, and maybe at the end of the season we will have something to celebrate together.”
Chelsea were really made to work for this win, as Stoke’s physical presence caused them trouble. But they overcame Tony Pulis’ side to ensure they sit on top of the Premier League, and the spirit within the side is pleasing to their Italian manager.
“Five wins out of five is pleasing,” said Ancelotti. “But this is not about having a better start than Mourinho, this is about now.
“We have to stay in this position at the top of the table until January. That is our desire, and that’s normal. In this game the team showed us very good quality and character. We also played with a big heart, and it’s not a surprise for me to see that because if a team gets to five Champions League semi-finals, they already have character.”
Their next challenge will a far different obstacle, as they face FC Porto in the Champions League without Didier Drogba or Jose Bosingwa.
Both players begin their European suspensions from last season, and Ancelotti believes Drogba’s determined display at Stoke illustrates just how frustrated he is to miss out on the next encounter.
“I think he is disappointed not to play in the Champions League,” he said.
“But I think it may have benefited us here in the league. The Porto game is going to be very different from this. They have the qualities to play on the floor, they don’t want to play physically.”
One of the biggest threats they faced on the visit was the Rory Delap throw-in. Ancelotti had come up with a plan to stop this though, and when Salomon Kalou leapt high in the air to stop one of the deliveries, it seemed to have worked perfectly.
That was until referee Mike Dean had his say, and booked the Ivorian for obstructing the throw.
“I don’t think the rules are clear, because the referee says he has to stand two metres from the throw,” Ancelotti explained. “He jumped and got a yellow card. I don’t know...this is not clear.’’
Faye scored his header, with Petr Cech caught in no man’s land, on 31 minutes, but the most telling matters for Stoke in the first half were injuries to forward James Beattie and goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen. Beattie was replaced after he twisted an ankle as he attempted a shot early on, and Simonsen came in for Sorensen after he suffered a knock. The injury delays meant that eight minutes of added time were played in the first half, and it was during that time Drogba spun Faye and drilled home an equaliser.
Faye made up for the momentary lapse with a colossal second half display, yet could do nothing about Malouda’s late goal.
Manager Pulis is now waiting to see whether he will lose the two key players, but has decided he will let fringe players leave the club on loan after signing seven new names during the January window.
“We’ve got a lot of players here at the moment, and I think a few of them are kicking their heels because they are desperate to be playing football,” he said.
“It makes sense to allow one or two of them out on loan and let them continue doing what they do best out on the pitch. It is beneficial to them and it will be beneficial to us, because they will be playing competitively pretty regularly. We will then assess the situation as we go along and see what is what come January.”
Man of the Match: Abdoulaye Faye: Did not deserve to end on the losing side after opening the scoring and then making two brilliant blocks to deny Didier Drogba in the second half.
Referee: Mike Dean (6): Stopped play on too many occasions and could have handed out fewer yellow cards.
Match rating: **** Brave Stoke were so unlucky yet the finale was thrilling as Chelsea’s character shone through.
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