Oscar in a class of his own against Stoke

Posted by Mark Worrall

Ian Walton/Getty ImagesThe Special One got to celebrate his 51st birthday with an FA Cup win over Stoke City.

A stunning free kick from Chelsea's midfield playmaker Oscar was enough to see off Stoke City in a one-sided FA Cup fourth-round tie at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

On the occasion of his 51st birthday, Blues manager Jose Mourinho should have been celebrating somewhat more than the 1-0 victory that his charges delivered. Once again, however, the London side spurned a hatful of chances to press home its advantage and might have been punished for its profligacy by a sharper outfit than Stoke, for whom Stephen Ireland went closest to securing an unlikely equalizer.

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With one eye on the forthcoming midweek London derby with struggling West Ham United, Mourinho benched first-team regulars Petr Cech, Cesar Azpilicueta, John Terry, Ramires and Willian. A rare start was given to Mark Schwarzer in goal, Nemanja Matic was handed a full debut, and fit-again Frank Lampard was restored to the midfield.

Chelsea's back four of Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole, protected by the excellent Matic and captain for the day Lampard, was a model of efficiency, and a creative trio of Andre Schurrle, Oscar and Eden Hazard with Samuel Eto'o leading the line was always going to cause a pedestrian Stoke City side problems every time it broke forward.

The Blues were soon in the groove and might have taken the lead shortly after the quarter-hour mark when a perfectly timed, last-ditch tackle from Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross prevented Schurrle from completing the goal-scoring opportunity afforded him by a neat Oscar pass.

The deadlock was broken from a set piece 10 minutes later when Eto'o was fouled outside the box by Erik Pieters. Brazilian duo David Luiz and Oscar eyed up the free kick, and Oscar stepped up to strike the ball sweetly with his right foot, curling it over Stoke's defensive wall, beyond the flailing hand of keeper Asmir Begovic and into the top left corner of the net. It was a fantastic strike from a player whose consistency, work rate and prowess in front of goal convinced Mourinho that he could dispense with the services of Juan Mata.

The Potters had failed to score in any of their five previous visits to Stamford Bridge, and with Matic bossing the midfield and displaying the qualities that persuaded Mourinho to bring him back to SW6, rare forays into the Blues' half were dealt with in a precise and diligent manner. In his two years in Portugal with Benfica, Matic matured as a player, and his hulking physique and ability to win and distribute the ball against bull-nosed opponents like Stoke suggest he could be the Chelsea manager's answer to finding a new Claude Makelele to fit his special template.

Five minutes before the break, Lampard had the opportunity to double the Blues' lead when he contrived to miss what looked like a simple tap-in following a twinkle-toed move by Hazard. Stephen Ireland might have then leveled the tie for the Potters, but his left-footed shot found the side netting. In a frenetic end to the first half, there was still time for Oscar to strike the post, but the score remained 1-0 at the break.

In the second period, Stoke's benign approach ensured that Chelsea enjoyed the lion's share of possession, and they had the woodwork to thank for not falling further behind when Schurrle saw a shot cannon off the upright five minutes after the restart. For all their faults, the visitors defended stoutly, and wave after wave of attacks yielded nothing but a series of corners for the Blues as they strove to kill off the game.

Just in case the Potters might have had the temerity to ruin his birthday celebration, in the 70th minute Mourinho replaced Schurrle with Ramires, shored up the midfield and sat back to see if Chelsea might fashion another goal, but it wasn't to come.

Begovic denied Lampard with a smart save, and Eto'o missed a sitter that drew howls of laughter from the Stamford Bridge crowd, which has become accustomed to the Cameroon international's erratic displays.

Inside the final 10 minutes, replaced by Willian, man of the match Oscar left the field to the standing ovation his performance warranted. From the comfort of the bench, he looked on as his countryman David Luiz had a viciously struck free kick tipped brilliantly away by Begovic. Might Oscar have done better? Who knows? He certainly wouldn't have struck the ball harder than Luiz.

In the end, progress to the fifth round of the FA Cup was all too easy for Mourinho's men. Reaching the sixth round will be a different kettle of fish altogether. Blues fans chirpiness leaving Stamford Bridge was muted somewhat by the news that Chelsea will have to beat free-scoring Manchester City if they are to continue on the road to Wembley this season.

Coming off the back of the eagerly anticipated Premier League encounter between the two sides, it's a challenge that Mourinho will relish. But for now the birthday boy will blow out the candles on his cake and relax. Contemplating two trips to the Etihad inside a week can wait until Monday.


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