If this was Chelsea's title defence petering out, it went with a sigh and a snarl.
There was deflation etched across the faces of the visiting players at the final whistle, betraying an acceptance that their pursuit of Manchester United now seems hopeless. Within minutes, Paulo Ferreira was pulling Didier Drogba away from an altercation with a supporter near the tunnel. This team struggles to accept failure.
That post-match argument with a visiting fan apparently centred upon the Ivorian striker's poor delivery of the final cross of the game, though quite how his performance warranted any kind of criticism was baffling. Drogba had relished a thunderous contest, played out to din from the stands, and managers and players were in agreement that neither side had deserved to lose. Yet such were the fine margins within which Chelsea were operating in their chase of United that they left the ground choked, as if they had been defeated. An 11-point deficit, even with a game in hand and a trip to Old Trafford to come, feels like a chasm now.
This team can make up for the disappointment of relinquishing their Premier League crown in other ways, primarily by winning a first European Cup and eliminating United in the quarter-finals on the way, and that has now become their real focus. Once the dust settles on the two points surrendered here, there will be acknowledgement that the performance was still impressive and that they can approach Wednesday's first leg against United with confidence. After all, there are few trickier trips in the top flight these days than a visit to the Britannia Stadium. In other circumstances, emerging with a point might have felt like a triumph.
"It was a tough, even game and most people would consider it a fair result," said Petr Cech. "But we are in a position where we have to consider this two points dropped. It's left us worse off."
The goalkeeper was outstanding, ensuring that the Londoners took their point. His save from Robert Huth, from Matthew Etherington's corner – tipping the ball on to the bar – defied belief. Ricardo Fuller might have won it for Stoke deep into stoppage time, although by then the woodwork had quivered twice for each side, Drogba flicking a post and belting a shot against the bar at the other end; Marc Wilson also hitting the frame for Stoke.
The home team were magnificent, Kenwyne Jones unsettling David Luiz and even John Terry and Jermaine Pennant and Etherington tormenting their markers.
"That second half was as well as we've played since I joined," said Etherington, who spoke to Terry at the final whistle. "He just said: 'You've been different class this season.' It was nice of him to say that."
These days Stoke, who are unbeaten at home this year, feel like an established top-flight force. Their FA Cup semi-final against Bolton at Wembley will offer them a focus, now that safety is within reach. They may require another win at least to be sure of staving off relegation, but their ability to compete with a revived Chelsea lineup was testament to the progress they have made this season. The power in their game is long established but there is also invention, trickery and even subtlety to their style when they build up a head of steam.
"If you've got Etherington, Pennant, Jones and [Jon] Walters, you've got four players who can play football," said the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis. "We caused [Chelsea] loads of problems. We get stigmatised at times, but that's not a problem for me."
Walters's goal – he embarrassed David Luiz on the touchline before teasing Michael Essien and finishing at Cech's near post – was wonderfully taken. Chelsea's response, Drogba thumping in the first league goal by any of their strikers since Fernando Torres made his debut, was just as impressive. Thereafter, the match was thrilling, even if it ended in a draw.
"Missing out on the league might just give Chelsea the added motivation to win the Champions League they need," said Etherington. "They will not want to miss out on a trophy this year, and that's the only realistic chance they have." Stoke could yet make this a memorable season of their own.
Man of the match: Petr Cech (Chelsea)
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