Cesc Fabregas starred as Chelsea re-established a three-point lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League with a 2-0 win at Stoke City on Monday night.
Manchester City's victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday had seen the defending champions pull level at the summit, but success at the Britannia Stadium on Monday ensures Chelsea head into the festive period out front in the title race. John Terry's headed opener from a Fabregas corner with less than two minutes played put the Blues ahead and Stoke struggled to find a way through the visitors' determined defensive line.
Chelsea, for their part, often looked dangerous on the break after going ahead, but were unable to build on their breakthrough until Fabregas swept home a second in 12 minutes from time. While the result moves Chelsea three points clear at the top, Stoke are 13th #;following a first defeat in three matches.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois returned from injury as Jose Mourinho made five changes to the Chelsea side that beat Derby County in the Capital One Cup quarter-finals on Tuesday, but it was two of the players who retained their starting berths from the trip to Pride Park who combined to open the scoring inside two minutes.
Terry shrugged off Geoff Cameron in the box to get his head to a Fabregas corner and deal the hosts an early blow - the Spaniard providing a 12th assist of the season.
Stoke - boosted by the return of Bojan Krkic as one of two changes - struggled to make any inroads in the opening stages and were thankful when Diego Costa failed to connect properly with a Branislav Ivanovic cutback five minutes after the opener.
The ball almost ended up in the Chelsea net off Terry after 21 minutes - Steven N'Zonzi's 20-yard strike well saved by Courtois following a heavy deflection off the defender - before Costa fired just wide following an error by Ryan Shawcross.
Asmir Begovic did well to get down to his right to keep out a Willian strike early in the second period before clinging onto a soft Fabregas strike after Hazard had managed to force the ball into the six-yard box.
Stoke enjoyed a greater share of possession after the interval, but struggled to carve out any clear-cut opportunities. Charlie Adam's introduction after 68 minutes appeared to give Stoke something of a lift and the midfielder sent an effort narrowly wide of the left-hand upright shortly after entering the action.
However, Fabregas had the final say, diverting the ball into the back of the net after being played in by Hazard, who limped off late on after a tackle from Jonathan Walters.
Bojan sent an effort whistling past the left-hand post deep into stoppage time, but there was no danger of Stoke challenging Chelsea's lead at that late stage.
Stoke City manager Mark Hughes: "That [Terry's goal] was the worst outcome of the opening period. It was the one thing we wanted to avoid because we know Chelsea can play counterattack, they are adept at it, they can kill the game. We gave it a real go in difficult circumstances, we got on the ball, asked questions, and gave good account of ourselves.
"I thought before their second we were putting them under pressure, but they are very good at killing the game, more often than not they took the sting out of the game, it is experienced play, they understand what is required. We had a go against a team that many feel will win the league.
"We tried to take the game to them, we kept them down to few opportunities, they took two and that's enough for them. But we have to take the positives out of it and move on."
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho: "These victories mean more than three points, to win and get three points the players need the right spirit and mentality, to win here they must be a really very good team with the capacity to adapt to Stoke's style of play. It was a fair game, a typical English winter game.
"Now we have to focus on the three matches we still have until the end of this period. Playing against Big Sam [Allardyce] is a hard job for us, we have to cope with it. The three-point lead we have is a little advantage, it is a little pillow we have to protect us - we go home happy and pleased with what we did."
|26 Dec 2014||v Everton (A)|
|28 Dec 2014||v West Brom (H)|
|01 Jan 2015||v Man Utd (H)|
|11 Jan 2015||v Arsenal (A)|
|17 Jan 2015||v Leicester (A)|
|31 Jan 2015||v QPR (H)|