There is only one thing more predictable than the X-Factor winner being Top of the Pops when the yuletide presents are unwrapped and that is the destination of the Premier League trophy if Chelsea are in pole position come the 25th day of December.
The West Londoners have won the title in each of the three previous occasions they have been Christmas No1 and Jose Mourinho’s immaculate record of seven league titles across the continent having been top of the tree adds further ammunition to the argument that the end of season honours will be handed out at Stamford Bridge.
Manchester City have mustered six consecutive wins to restore credibility in the reigning champions, but goals from John Terry and the indefatigable Cesc Fabregas ensured that Chelsea withstood a late rally from those clad in sky blue to be crowned popular winners of the fabled festive bragging rights.
“We want to play our game, we have our own identity that we want to keep,” Mourinho began, in his pre-match duties to Sky. “But if you are not able to adapt to the opponent when they have the ball, you are in trouble, so we’ve prepared ourselves during the week to try to cope with their style of play.”
The Portuguese echoed the sentiments of Gary Neville in the Monday Night Football studio, who was left disgruntled by the paucity of defensive mettle on show at Anfield 24 hours earlier, when two sides demonstrated how far the art of defending one’s penalty area has been neglected in recent times.
The league leaders didn’t need anywhere near the 27 attempts on Arsenal’s goal by Liverpool to amass the two strikes necessary for the type of scrappy victory that has become the hallmark of Mourinho’s championship-winning sides.
The Chelsea manager approached the game wary that the bigger the team, the better Stoke have played this season. Their diminutive forward Bojan had already exploited the softness of Spurs and Arsenal with his gliding runs, and so it was of little surprise that John Obi Mikel retained his position in the side having featured in each of the last five fixtures, including the 3-1 victory at Derby County last week.
Indeed, it has been Mourinho’s way this season not to tinker profoundly from one week to the next, preferring to allow his players a degree of consistency. Mikel’s inclusion in the Capital One Cup quarter-final served as a precursor to the screening job he would be asked to fulfill at the Britannia alongside Nemanja Matic.
Combatting the aerial threat of the hosts with the Nigerian’s height would also have been in Mourinho’s thoughts, but it was through this means that Stoke were not for the first time this season ‘Stoked’.
Willian, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were all left on the deck inside the opening quarter of an hour by typically hefty challenges but the only wrestling match which mattered resulted in the Chelsea breakthrough after two minutes.
Terry, on his 650th Blues appearance, outmuscled Geoff Cameron to meet Fabregas’ corner and head his side in front, helping to settle any nerves of the unlikely event that City would overtake them courtesy of another Stoke scalp. I’m not sure the Wealdstone Raider would’ve approved given the poor crowds on Champions League nights at the Etihad in the autumn.
Stoke certainly had their most vociferous fans in attendance on Monday night, and they were upstanding following a robust challenge by Phil Bardsley on Hazard after the ball had already gone out of play.
The usually impartial Neville uncharacteristically donned his full-backs’ union cap, lending sympathy to Bardsley for what he described as a challenge worthy of an ‘orange card’, but several players, including Gabriel Agbonlahor, have been sent off for far less this season.
While the former Sunderland defender was fortunate to avoid more severe retribution, it did serve its purpose as the home side were subsequently encouraged to enjoy their best spell in the game.
Both Steven Nzonzi and Jonathan Walters had goal-bound shots deflected, before even the legs of referee Neil Swarbrick snuffed out a swift Chelsea counter-attack, much to the chagrin of Mourinho.
Costa failed to capitalize on Ryan Shawcross’ ill-judged decision to appeal for offside by dragging his shot wide, denying Fabregas his 13th assist of the campaign. It enabled Stoke to remain within touching distance until the Spaniard himself put the game to bed with little over ten minutes remaining.
Mourinho hailed his side’s spirit and mentality in returning to London with what he described as ‘more than three points’. Having failed the Britannia test last year, the Special One identified where he needed to strengthen, and went out and bought it in the summer.
The knocks and bruises felt on the team coach this time around would have been worn like badges of honour, the scars of victory on a winter’s night in the Potteries the DNA of champions. It has left them battle-hardened for the difficult trips to Southampton and Tottenham after the Boxing Day visit of West Ham to the Bridge.
Defeats at Everton, Crystal Palace and Stoke proved decisive in derailing Chelsea’s title quest last campaign, but the Blues have now won at each of those awkward venues this time, and it is their growing maturity to navigate a way to victory at these grounds that has placed them as favourites for the title.
Seven of the last 10 teams to be top on Christmas Day have progressed to be anointed Premier League champions the following May. City will continue to apply the squeeze, but few would bet against Chelsea making it eight out of 11 following their latest show of strength.