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Game Over?

An immovable object met an unstoppable force on Saturday at Brittania Stadium.

Stoke City are unbeaten at home this season. Chelsea had beaten Stoke 5 out of 5 times in the Premier League, a perfect record. Something had to give.

The loser? Chelsea’s chances of retaining their Premiership title. They vaporized in a 1-1 draw. Manchester United now sit 11 points clear with just eight contests remaining after coming back from 2-0 at West Ham.

With one eye firmly on Wednesday’s massive Champions League match against Manchester United, Carlo Ancelotti might have let a victory slip away. He’s probably not too disappointed. His clear priority was protecting his star players.

On the bench were Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic. Ramires was yanked in the second half despite being Chelsea’s most dangerous player, as was Anelka. Ancelotti was trying to keep key players fresh for Wednesday after a busy week of international play.

One man who won’t be on the pitch Wednesday, David Luiz, was, shockingly, perhaps Chelsea’s poorest performer. His defensive weakness — he plays his man very tightly, often allowing him to spin by with the ball, leaving Luiz out of position — was glaringly revealed just 7 minutes into the game. With Chelsea caught forward, Jonathan Walters took the ball at the halfway line where he was met by Luiz. He muscled by him and from there it was a clear sprint to the box. A deft sidestep by the onrushing Essien and Walters calmly put Stoke City ahead. Luiz was “turned” several times on Saturday, by Edwyne Jones, Walters and Matthew Etherington. It’s an aspect of his game that needs work. Other teams will see his weakness and exploit it.

Stoke’s goal was against the run of play in the first half. Chelsea had comfortably more possession. With Essien as the holding mid in a 4-4-2, Ramires in particular was getting forward and making himself a constant threat. But it was the old firm — Anelka to Drogba — that gave Chelsea their goal. In the 33rd minute Anelka lofted a perfect pass into the center of the box where a running Drogba crouched to head it powerfully by Asmir Begovic. It was a beautiful goal. It suggests that Drogba, who looked lively throughout, might be refreshed after scoring for Cote d’Ivoire during on the break.

And while we’re talking about players making a slow return to form, Frank Lampard also had a very good match. There were hints that he might even be developing an understanding with Ramires. That’s the kind of partnership and insightful play that Chelsea have lacked all season.

It must be noted that another player who is making a slow return from injury also had an excellent match. Jose Bosingwa is man Chelsea fans love to hate. But he looked very sharp today. He was consistently quick and his passing was good. He got injured and was caught up the field on one counterattack but overall he was a strength for the team.

Speaking of counter attacks, that was the story of the second half. With Chelsea committing men forward and Stoke City committed to launching counterattacks, there were chances galore at both ends of the pitch.

The crossbar might still be vibrating from a Drogba shot in the 80th minute. And it’s a good thing Petr Cech didn’t trim his nails this morning. He made a series of fingertip and reaction saves in a dazzling 20 minute spell starting around the 60th minute. Time and again Chelsea sent men forward in search of the winning goal, only to be caught by Stoke’s counters. Too often the defenders were left with little help, exposing large amounts of space that City gleefully exploited. Stoke, meanwhile, kept 7 men behind the ball when it was in their half.

Lost in all of this was a substitute appearance by Fernando Torres in the 61st minute. Other than one long dribbling run, he was a non-factor. His scoreless streak for club and country is now 11, four shy of his record (15, set at Atletico Madrid.)

In the end, a draw was the fair result. Both sides will feel they squandered chances, perhaps Stoke more so than Chelsea.

From Carlo Ancelotti’s perspective, the important thing was getting out of Brittania without any major injuries. It’s been clear for some time that Chelsea are unlikely to win the league title. He knows where Chelsea’s best chance at glory lies this season.

With this week’s Premier League duties tidily disposed of, the wait now begins for what is left of Chelsea’s true season: the Champions League.

See you Wednesday!

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