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Blue Christmas for Chelsea as Londoners top the tree


Perfect start: John Terry heads Chelsea in front against Stoke after only two minutes

Perfect start: John Terry heads Chelsea in front against Stoke after only two minutes

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Perfect start: John Terry heads Chelsea in front against Stoke after only two minutes

These are the games that Jose Mourinho is referring to when he talks about the long slog of winning a league title in England, the kind of first-against-13th-place encounters that would be easily ticked off by the big clubs in Spain or Italy but here have to be fought for to the very end.

There were times when Stoke City pushed the league leaders to the limit, not least a disastrously dangerous tackle by Phil Bardsley on Eden Hazard in the first half that had both benches at each other's throats, but Mourinho's team never lost their cool.

They took the lead through John Terry within two minutes before Stoke had even found their rhythm and they never really gave their opponents a clear sight of goal.

It was Cesc Fabregas who finally won the game for good with 12 minutes remaining and Mourinho could at last feel confident enough to substitute Diego Costa, the man who was set upon by Ryan Shawcross, to try to strike at the very heart of the home side.

Costa never got the goal he desperately strained for to make his point to Shawcross but he did enough keeping the Stoke defence occupied.

It leaves Chelsea top at Christmas, three points clear of Manchester City in second place.

You could see the Chelsea manager's satisfaction in his willingness to shake the hand of Mark Hughes at the end of the game after they had quarrelled during the first half. He even extended a handshake to the referee Neil Swarbrick.

Stoke were undone inside two minutes at a corner, conceded by a shot deflected wide and clipped in from the right wing by Cesc Fabregas on to the head of John Terry who nodded his third goal of the season downwards past Asmir Begovic.

The real business had taken place seconds earlier when Geoff Cameron had tried to get hold of Terry in the box and been expertly palmed away by the Chelsea captain who was more focused on the ball than his opponent.

These are the kind of goals that Stoke like to score but this was Chelsea showing there is more than just silky Fabregas touches to their repertoire. Nonetheless, the corner was the Spain midfielder's 12th assist of the season. The record for an entire Premier League season belongs to Thierry Henry and he totalled 20 in the course of an entire 38 games in 2002-2003.

After the goal had been scored, the contest could begin in earnest. It was hard to take your eyes from Shawcross and Costa's mutual animosity; like the heavyweights at the top of the card they shoved and kneed one another and, to Costa's frustration, his opponent failed to stand still when he tried to walk backwards on to his toes.

For the real violence, you needed look no further than Phil Bardsley's atrocious challenge on EdenHazard on 19 minutes, a straight red card in most referee's book but worthy of just a yellow from Neil Swarbrick. He could have booked Bardsley six minutes earlier for a foul on the same player, and in the aftermath of the second challenge the two benches erupted.

Stoke thrived in the ensuing minutes, with Chelsea still nursing their injustice over Hazard. Steven Nzonzi shot over and Gary Cahill had to be at his best to block a shot from Jonathan Walters.

The grievances were still being nursed as the players departed at half-time but, the game lost its spark until the last 20 minutes when Charlie Adam whot just wide of Thibaut Courtois' goal.

Then, on 78 minutes, Hazard picked out Fabregas in the box and his first touch right looked like it was intended to steer the ball into the path of Costa. Instead the midfielder followed the ball himself and his scuffed shot into the corner deceived Begovic entirely.

Costa should have had one himself on 84 minutes when substitute Andre Schurrle teed him up with six minutes remaining. He missed but his and Chelsea's job was done.


Stoke: Begovic,Bardsley,Shawcross,Muniesa, Pieters,Nzonzi, Cameron (Adam 68),Walters,Bojan,Arnautovic (Assaidi82), Crouch (Diouf 63). Subs not used: Huth,Whelan,Wilson,Butland.

Booked: Bardsley,Pieters,Walters.

Chelsea: Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill,Terry, Azpilicueta, Mikel, Matic, Willian (Schurrle 80), Fabregas, Hazard (Zouma 90), Costa (Drogba 85). Subs not used: Cech, Luis, Ake,Oscar.

Goals: Terry 2, Fabregas 78.

Match rating: 6/10

Main man: Hazard (Chelsea)

Attendance: 27,550

Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire).

Belfast Telegraph