Hazard warning for Potters as Blues prepare for Stoke

Posted by Mark Worrall

Charlie Crowhurst/Getty ImagesWith Chelsea's defence leaking goals of late, another brilliant performance from Eden Hazard may be needed for the Blues at Stoke.

With little time to recover from the exertions of Wednesday night's rumbustious 4-3 victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Blues manager Jose Mourinho takes Chelsea north once more Saturday, this time to the Potteries where they will face Stoke City at the Brittania Stadium.

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In beating the Black Cats, Mourinho's men recorded their third straight win in the Premier League, though the nerve-jangling, unpredictable manner in which another vital three points were secured against the EPL's basement club left supporters of the London side knowing that nothing can be taken for granted -- especially on the road.

While Eden Hazard grabbed the headlines with an eye-catching brace of goals and an assist, there is due cause for concern about the brittleness of Chelsea's defence. For the second consecutive Premier League game, and the seventh out of the past 10, the Blues found themselves having to chase a result from a losing position. Only once, against Newcastle United, have the Stamford Bridge club failed to make a comeback, but it is the manner in which goals have been conceded that remains a headache for Mourinho.

Sunderland breached Chelsea's back line three times; on each occasion, the Blues net rippled following a dead-ball situation. The Black Cats' opener came following what looked like a well-rehearsed free-kick routine when Jozy Altidore, allowed far too much time on the ball by John Terry, turned and beat Petr Cech with a crisp volley. Goal No. 2 was the result of a shockingly defended corner that saw Sunderland skipper John O'Shea lose Gary Cahill and find sufficient space in a crowded penalty area to fire home. The third goal came after another corner -- this time Phil Bardsley the goal-scoring beneficiary of slack marking by Demba Ba.

In his postmatch news conference, Mourinho had been quick to highlight his side’s deficiencies. "We failed in the basic things of the game," conceded the Blues boss. "The most basic thing is to defend set-pieces. You know the positions; you practice the positions. You have to have some players to defend spaces and you have some players to defend men, and we failed. We should have won cleanly because of the way we played. We risked [everything] to the last second. We have [to take] responsibility."

Mourinho was as succinct as ever when noting the extent of the problem. "We played so well that we shouldn't have arrived at injury time in a dangerous situation like we did," he said. "If in the last six minutes they had two more corners, I think they would have won 5-4."

Defensive frailty is not a feature associated with teams managed by the Portuguese, but right now the Blues are being continually undone by lapses of concentration at the back. With next to no time to address the issue on the training ground, Mourinho will not relish the prospect of seeing how his rearguard cope with the physical assault and aerial bombardment they can expect against Stoke City. Forget any fanciful notion that new Potters manager Mark Hughes may have eschewed about his charges playing football on the ground, this is still very much the Tony Pulis side of old -- and those old habits die hard with a vengeance.

Under Hughes, City have laboured this season. Erratic form borne out of a failure to create chances from open play sees Stoke languishing in 14th place in the Premier League table, and Wednesday night's 0-0 home draw with Cardiff City was symptomatic of their current travails. A war of attrition is in the cards at the Brittania for Chelsea, though Blues supporters will take comfort from that fact that Everton, with a sparkling display of creative attacking football, put four past Potters goalie Asmir Begovic last weekend.

Despite the noted defensive issues and fixtures coming thick and fast for Chelsea, Mourinho is unlikely to make any significant changes against Stoke with the now-familiar back line of Cech, Cesar Azpilicueta, Cahill, Terry and Branislav Ivanovic all set to start once more. There is a case for restoring Ashley Cole to his customary left-back berth with Azpilicueta, a natural right-back, either dropping to bench or replacing Ivanovic, thus allowing the big Serb to potentially partner with Terry at the expense of Cahill. Such a back four might be better equipped to deal with the towering presence of Peter Crouch and lumbering nuisance of Ryan Shawcross, particularly at set pieces -- but maybe right now for Mourinho it's a case of better the devils you know.

The midfield engine room could see Frank Lampard handed a rest with John Obi Mikel coming into the side to partner with Ramires. Creatively, Juan Mata worked well with Hazard, and while Oscar may be fit to return following an ankle injury, Mourinho may opt to keep him on the bench given the expected bruising nature of the contest with Stoke. Elsewhere, Willian and Fernando Torres could retain their places in the Blues' starting lineup as Mourinho thinks ahead to Wednesday's Champions League match with the somewhat less pugnacious Steaua Bucharest.

Chelsea have yet to lose at the Britannia Stadium since Stoke City were promoted to the Premier League in 2008, and last season, under the stewardship of Rafa Benitez, the Blues romped to a 4-0 victory. Notwithstanding the physical battle that lies ahead, it’s hard to see the Potters being able to cope with Chelsea's rapier-like midfield, and in any case, Mourinho will have the usual array of talent at his disposal on the bench should he need to change things en route to collecting another three points.


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