Chelsea's results so far this year make topsy-turvy reading.
Two home defeats, both unexpected, against Queens Park Rangers and Swansea, and two away wins by four-goal margins at Southampton and Stoke. Some significance can be read into the last at the Britannia, as it emphatically ended the last home unbeaten record in all four divisions. Not many teams are going to win 4-0 at Stoke but even fewer will do so by scoring only one goal of their own making from open play.
The one goal that did not come from Jon Walters's forehead or Frank Lampard's reliability from the penalty spot was a stunning Eden Hazard strike that summed up Chelsea's superiority. Hazard in particular spent the first half being bumped around like a pinball between Stoke's burly defenders, frequently ending up on his backside looking pleadingly at the referee for free-kicks that never came.
It looked like the classic test for an expensive flair player from overseas: can he do it on a cold Saturday afternoon in Stoke? Hazard could. He stayed on the pitch for the whole game, became increasingly influential in the second half, and scored a goal that even the Stoke fans could only applaud. "A wonder goal," Tony Pulis called it. By which the Stoke manager meant it was unstoppable, unlike the three that preceded it.
Rafael Benítez did not want to single out Hazard for special praise, just as he did not want to entertain any more questions about Lampard's contract situation, but the Chelsea manager was clearly referring to the Belgian when he spoke about the care that was taken to brief new players about what to expect from a trip to Stoke.
"We had to try to explain to some of the players what they could find here," Benítez said. "We told them they would get a physical game against a team with a clear idea of how they want to play. We watched clips, saw what we had to do and the response was really good."
Lampard, captain for the day, knew exactly what to expect of Stoke but agreed it was important for the whole team to be mentally prepared. "It was very important to get our attitude right for this one," he said. "It was a freezing cold day, it was blowy, and Stoke have been unbelievable at home this year. You know what you get with them, they are physical and quite rightly play to their strengths. But we were right on our game and barring the first 15 or 20 minutes when they put us under pressure, we completely dominated."
During that first quarter of the game Stoke had a chance to take the lead when Andy Wilkinson's shot was deflected into the path of Kenwyne Jones, only for the striker to narrowly miss the target with just Petr Cech to beat. That was the home side's clearest opportunity until the Walters penalty right at the end that skidded high into the Boothen End off the top of Cech's bar. By that stage the Stoke player was already on the scoresheet with two credits in the Chelsea account. On both occasions he was being pressurised by Chelsea players in close proximity and put on the spot by the quality of the crosses delivered by César Azpilicueta and Juan Mata respectively.
"We had a man behind him each time," Benítez said. "So he could not afford to do nothing."
What made an unfortunate situation even worse for Stoke was the timing of the own goals. The first came right on the stroke of half-time, when the home side had only seconds to play out to turn around level; the next arrived on the hour just after Stoke had been unlucky not to be awarded a penalty. In point of fact Andre Marriner did award a penalty for Azpilicueta's foul on Matthew Etherington, only to turn round and discover Sian Massey had her flag raised for offside.
"It was a good decision – I accept it was offside," Pulis said. "But on another day we might have got lucky with that and been back in the game at 1-1. As it was the second goal killed us, then there was a soft penalty and a wonder goal. We were in the game for a long time, it didn't feel like a 4-0."
Once it was 4-0, after Lampard's penalty following a foul by Robert Huth on Mata and Hazard's clean strike from 25 yards, Benítez judged it safe to send on John Terry for the last few minutes and the first of his comeback games from a knee injury.
The former England captain managed to give away a last-minute penalty with a challenge on Walters, and must have been relieved when the same player shaped to take the kick. It hardly mattered at that stage of the game, but surely another Stoke player should have stepped in. Walters' head must have been all over the place. It certainly had been in the previous 89 minutes.
Man of the match Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
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