Chelsea Equals Arsenal Record With 4-2 Victory Over Stoke City

Diego Costa
Poster of Diego Costa at Stamford Bridge, London, December 31. Chelsea faced Stoke City. Reuters / Tony O'Brien

With five minutes to go at Stamford Bridge, a routine throw-in from Marcus Alonso saw the ball bounce around in Stoke City's area. Surrounded by defenders, Diego Costa bullied himself some space and then drilled the ball past a helpless Lee Grant. Chelsea was 4-2 ahead and out of sight. Thirteen games, 13 wins: Arsenal's record equalled.

Twice the hosts had to regain the lead in this 4-2 thriller, with captain Gary Cahill putting the hosts ahead in the first-half before a double from Willian was required in the second 45 minutes after Bruno Martins Indi and Peter Crouch levelled for Stoke.

Victory guaranteed Antonio Conte's side will take a six-point lead at the top of the Premier League into 2017, with Manchester City and Liverpool, the chasing pack, playing in the late kick-off.

Twelve months ago, Chelsea was closing 2015 just three points off the relegation zone. The then-champions were in tatters, with Jose Mourinho sacked and the club in search of a permanent replacement. In stepped Conte, and the ascent began.

But Mark Hughes' Stoke City delivered a stubborn performance in west London on New Year's Eve. With Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Afellay back in the ranks, Stoke played with a greater energy in midfield and attack, enjoying the better chances early on. Shaqiri ballooned over from a smart set-piece, and Charlie Adam headed just wide.

Chelsea threatened to find their mark in the opening stages with Eden Hazard and N'Golo Kante going close, but it took until the half-hour mark for the hosts to truly threaten. The lean and mean Costa, returning from suspension, latched onto a 50-yard David Luiz pass and won a corner. Cesc Fabregas' in-swinger landed on the head of Cahill, who bulleted past Grant. The stand-in Chelsea captain pumped his fists as the hosts looked to be heading toward its 13th successive win. Little did Chelsea know what was to come.

As Conte's side slipped into gear, Stoke failed to maintain the energy shown early on. Diego Costa drilled a free-kick over, and Luiz headed wide just before the break. Within seconds of the restart, however, Chelsea saw the record threatened. A free-kick from Adam was nodded down to the penalty area by Peter Crouch and prodded in by Bruno Martins Indi.

Chelsea regrouped and regained the lead 10 minutes later through slick interchange. Victor Moses dropped his shoulder on the right, skipping past Erik Pieters, and delivered to Hazard. The Belgian cushioned the ball first time to Willian, who also took his effort instantly, drilling the ball low past Grant. Conte, constantly an animated figure in the dugout, was pumping his fists to the sky.

The celebration was short-lived, though. Hughes reacted to Chelsea's lead by bringing on Imbula and Bojan just after the hour-mark. Three minutes later the change worked with Bojan feeding Mame Diouf down the right and his cross being poked home by a lanky leg belonging to Crouch. Stamford Bridge was, once again, stunned into silence, but for the away end.

Conte would no doubt have changed his side, in search of a winner, but the response was immediate. Hazard picked up the ball from the restart and drove at the Stoke defense. He slipped the ball to Fabregas who, in turn, fed Willian. The Brazilian thrashed a right-footed effort into the top of the net, bringing the record back into reach. Fabregas, the frequent provider, recorded his 100th Premier League assist with the pass.

Chelsea looked to kill the game off with Costa putting a sweeping move just over the bar. Stoke threatened to come back for a third time when Crouch came close twice in the 81st minute.

But four minutes later the game was done. Costa, playing in the form of his life, got the goal his performance here deserved when he drilled past Grant for his 15th goal of the season. Conte could now afford himself a smile as the cushion was there.

On came Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic and Nathaniel Chalobah as Conte looked to shut the game down. Marcus Alonso almost provided the glittering finish to the year when he sent a right-footed effort whistling past Grant's post.

As referee Bobby Madley blew the final whistle, Conte was back on the Stamford Bridge pitch. In less than six months at Chelsea, he has turned a tired club into what looks like a reborn champion. Chelsea will hope he can deliver the stability that 2016 has lacked.