STOKE-ON-TRENT (AFP) – Chelsea ensured they will spend Christmas Day on top of the Premier League as goals from John Terry and Cesc Fabregas gave the leaders a gritty 2-0 victory at Stoke on Monday.
It was not the most fluent performance from Jose Mourinho’s side but, at a venue where Arsenal recently lost 3-2, it was the result and not the performance which mattered most and the Blues now sit three points clear of second placed Manchester City heading into the hectic festive programme.
City’s win over Crystal Palace on Saturday had drawn them level on points with Chelsea, but this was an emphatic response from the west Londoners as they bid to wrestle the title from the Eastlands outfit.
The only concern for Chelsea was a late injury to Belgium playmaker Eden, Hazard, who was replaced after getting a kick to his foot following a challenge by Jon Walters.
Chelsea could not have got off to a better start as they took the lead inside the opening 90 seconds when Terry rose highest above Geoff Cameron to head a Fabregas corner past Asmir Begovic.
It was the former England captain’s first league goal of the season and a 12th assist of the season for Spain midfielder Fabregas.
Mourinho’s men coped better with the blustery conditions at the Britannia Stadium and came close to a second as Diego Costa dragged a shot wide of the post.
Stoke defender Phil Bardsley was only booked for a late challenge on Hazard on the touchline, a decision that prompted Mourinho to protest from outside the technical area.
And that incident seemed to spur on Stoke, who went close within seconds as Steven N’Zonzi’s deflected shot was pushed behind by Thibaut Courtois.
But it should have been 2-0 on the half hour as a Fabregas pass breached the Stoke offside trap and Costa ran through before dragging his tame shot wide.
Stoke created brief moments of optimism at the start of the second half with Peter Crouch heading over from Bardsley’s cross from the right.
The Blues carved out another opening as Hazard crossed for Fabregas whose near-post flick failed to overly trouble Begovic.
Chelsea were not at their free-flowing best, but the steely visitors were still the most likely to get a second goal and Brazilian winger Willian saw a free kick deflect wide for a corner.
Crouch had endured a frustrating evening and he was replaced by Mame Diouf as Stoke boss Mark Hughes looked for a way back into the contest.
Marco Arnautovic then saw an effort deflected wide for a corner but Stoke’s set pieces were proving to be unthreatening.
Charlie Adam was brought on to improve Stoke’s quality in possession.
And immediately Walters came close to getting on the end of an Adam delivery, while the Scottish midfielder also drilled a left-footed shot wide from the edge of the area from N’Zonzi’s lay-off.
But Fabregas settled the contest 12 minutes from time, taking Hazard’s pass before scuffing his shot past Begovic from close-range.
It may have been a fortunate strike but the Spaniard joyously celebrated his fourth goal for the club he joined from Barcelona in the close-season.