Chelsea ended 2017 on a high note, dismantling Stoke 5-0 to move into second place with their fifth win in six games. Mark Hughes’ charges meekly surrendered to the champions’ onslaught, conceding after just three minutes and failing to recover.
Danny Drinkwater scored his first goal for the Blues to double their lead, and Pedro’s effort from outside the box gave them a three-goal advantage before the half hour. Willian added a fourth from the penalty spot and substitute Davide Zappacosta added a late fifth two minutes from time to complete the Potters’ misery.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s clash at the Bridge:
5. Willian Is Chelsea’s Most Consistent Player
With Eden Hazard taking most of the plaudits, Willian has spent a large part of the season on the bench, with most of his starts in the cup competitions. In the absence of the Belgian, Willian steps up and becomes Chelsea’s vocal point, to great effect.
Despite this, he remains the champions’ most reliable player, always delivering whenever he steps onto the field.
The Brazilian was the only person to come out of the wretched 2015-16 season with any credit, and scored eight goals in just 15 league starts on the way to the title last term. He remains one of the elite players in the squad, despite reduced time on the field this year.
4. Stoke Desperately Need Ryan Shawcross Fit
With Ryan Shawcross out after being taken off injured on Boxing Day, Stoke fielded an untested centre-back pairing of Kevin Wimmer and Geoff Cameron, who were torn apart time and time again by Willian and Pedro’s interplay and short passing.
The only other time the Potters have lost by five goals this season was their 7-2 drubbing at the Etihad, another game where they were missing their captain, and he is proving himself invaluable at the Britannia.
Without the Englishman there to organise the back line and keep a solid structure, they lack the necessary tools to defend against most teams in the division, which could prove costly.
3. Chelsea Don’t Need Eden Hazard Every Week
Facing a tough London derby at Arsenal in midweek, Antonio Conte rested Eden Hazard for Saturday’s game and Chelsea were never in any danger of having to bring him on, fully in control for the whole 90 minutes.
His replacements in attack, Willian and Pedro, were sensational and put Stoke to the sword with breathtaking trickery. The two wingers also offered a healthy amount of tracking back, one of the few things the Belgian is criticised for at times.
On this evidence, Conte can be confident of leaving his talisman out from time to time with no detriment to the result.
2. Saido Berahino Is Not Good Enough For Stoke
Key to Stoke’s problems on Saturday was the lack of any sustained attacking threat, with the visitors registering only one shot on goal the entire game.
Saido Berahino led the line for his first Premier League start in three months, and offered little to trouble the Chelsea backline. Their only effort at Thibaut Courtois was wasteful, with the young Englishman clean through only to shoot straight at the Belgian.
Berahino hasn’t scored in the league since February 2016, and with Peter Crouch and Mame Biram Diouf the other striking options in the squad, Mark Hughes may feel he needs to dip into the market in January to try and find a reliable goalscorer.
1. Chelsea Are Manchester City’s Closest Challengers
Manchester City’s record-breaking form and double-digit lead at the top have made Chelsea’s expectations drop to the extent that second place would be seen as a successful defence of their title.
Their city rivals have been the closest side to Pep Guardiola’s team thus far, but the Blues’ 5-0 win on Saturday took them above United into second place.
With Jose Mourinho’s men suffering a blip of sorts, dropping points in winnable games against Burnley and Leicester, Antonio Conte must be confident of hunting them down and being in pole position to take advantage of any troubles at the Etihad, however unlikely that may be.