The start of a season that heralded a new beginning, and a break from the old, turned out initially to be much the same as last season.
A familiar line up read; Cech, Bosingwa, Alex, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Mikel, Lampard; Kalou, Torres, Malouda – eight of whom started the final match of last season, with Kalou making a substitute appearance in that match too.
Yet to focus only on the line-ups and predictable headlines the Stoke match generated will be to miss so much more of what happened at the Britannia stadium. Both the team and some individual performances were a marked break with the old.
Torres was the surprise inclusion up front having taken a knock mid-week for Spain, and then so began a seemingly familiar story too; Chelsea with an exciting early push, only to lose possession then their nerve, and allow Stoke to put a series of challenging balls into our area.
Cech was thankfully up to the task, and commanded his area well throughout the match, especially considering the repeated holding and blocking by Stoke players whenever challenging a ball, or defending a free kick, and playing as a sweeper at times too.
Chelsea grew into the first half, with Torres looking very sharp, strong and controlling the ball well. Alex was a beast at the back, seeing off everything that came his way alongside Terry, and Ramires put in a good shift too – providing some sorely needed muscle, and strength on the ball.
The play was sharper, more intelligent and with some good interplay between positions, Cole pressed forwards where possible and even Bosingwa played well, defending and attacking very well, and playing himself out of some tricky situations, as well as putting some decent balls in the box too.
The major disappointment of the half was that of our wide players. Kalou was Kalou, frustrating and fascinating with equal measure. Skinning a player one minute then losing simple possession the next, as well as falling over his own feet in the box.
Malouda had good spells, but ran into his man too often. He missed a good chance when played in by Torres, and was seemingly hesitant at points in passing to the Spaniard too. Villas-Boas was up and down on the touchline, clearly not happy about the way his team was playing.
The half time came and went with no changes, and the second half started with Chelsea pressing the ball harder, and having more time in possession than before with Stoke sitting off more, increasing their physical play, and knocking the ball longer.
Torres was the recipient of the worst of their tactics, but got up and got on with it each time, despite referee Mark Halsey’s increasingly erratic interpretation of the rules. Torres had a couple of efforts, one a delightful turn and shoot that was offside, and also a header saved at close range.
The shot of the half came from Mikel; 40 yards out on the volley, needing a save from Begovic to tip it over the bar. Chelsea were also denied at least three penalty shouts, two on Torres and one on Lampard, but Halsey waved each one away in turn.
It was looking like one of those days, and so it came to pass as despite five minutes of injury time and having Drogba, Torres and Anelka on the pitch at the same time, we just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net.
Villas-Boas stated after the match; “I couldn’t be pleased with a point but it is one of the most difficult grounds to play away from home,’ said Villas-Boas as he looked back on the game. Last season at home I think Stoke had 10 wins and a couple of draws so for our title challenge one point from Stoke is not bad. ”
“It is not the greatest start of course but we are happy we raised our game in the second half. The first half we were able to defend them but we struggled with Stoke’s set plays and we couldn’t put the ball on the ground which was to their advantage.”
“We couldn’t create opportunities which we managed do in the second half, but unfortunately the goal didn’t happen. We were close and we played in their half in the second half. The game was more in our control but unfortunately we couldn’t find the back of the net.”
Fernando Torres rightfully won the man of the match award for his performance, and sounded confident in his post match interview, stating; “I am feeling very fresh, with pace and sharpness, so I’m happy with that, but not the nil-nil, as strikers want to score all the time. I would like to score in every game, but that is not possible.”
“Following the pre-season, I am only 27 so I have not forgotten how to play, score or play well. Last season was a season to forget for me. A lot of bad things happened in that season, but that is in the past and now I want to focus on this season which I am sure will be very good for Chelsea and myself.”
Chelsea had 16 shots on goal, with 8 of them on target. Stoke had 4 shots on goal, with one on target. In total we had 64% of the possession to Stoke’s 36% – Stoke is never an easy place to go and so it proved, but this is only an early stutter, we can and will improve.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Alex, Terry (c), Cole; Ramires, Mikel, Lampard, Kalou (Drogba 75), Torres (Benayoun 88), Malouda (Anelka 65).
Booked Cole 65, Lampard 88.