There was, said Mark Hughes, no doubt in his mind that Chelsea would win the title. His only job as Stoke manager was to delay his former club’s coronation.
The roadblock held until five minutes from the end and if it is a sign of champions that they score in unexpected ways through unexpected players, then Chelsea fit the blueprint exactly. The scoreline was jammed at 1-1, time was drifting away and a point at Stoke, who had lost one league match here since September, would have been a good afternoon’s work from Antonio Conte’s men.
Then David Luiz met Willian’s corner with a soft header that Erik Pieters countered with a soft, scuffed clearance that Gary Cahill drove into the Stoke net in front of the nearly 3,000 who had travelled to the Potteries to see Chelsea close in on their sixth title. It had been Cahill’s error that had given Stoke the penalty that should have cost Chelsea two points. Here, as so often in football, was redemption.
Chelsea’s supporters would return to their homes across the South East with their team 13 points clear with 10 matches remaining. Tottenham, their nearest challengers may have a game in hand but it is a fig-leaf.
When Conte led his team past their supporters after the final whistle, he punched the air with both fists and shouted encouragement. If the Premier League is a marathon, then Chelsea can see the stadium and there is no other athlete in sight.
When Chelsea went ahead before a quarter of an hour was up, it appeared this might be a very straightforward afternoon. The goal sprang from a free-kick from Willian and some very forgettable goalkeeping from Lee Grant.
A foul on Marcos Alonso had given Chelsea a free-kick on the left-hand edge of the area and when Willian curled it to the near post, Grant almost pushed it into his own net. Midway through the first half, Grant saved when Alonso had been put through, which was a clearer indication of his ability.
He produced another around a quarter of an hour from the finish as Pedro Rodriguez sent a shot flashing towards goal. Just before, after Erik Pieters had fouled Pedro, there was another free kick that Alonso curled on to the crossbar. This time Grant was absolutely helpless.
From the moment Willian scored, the afternoon should have been reasonably straightforward but with every minute that passed, it became uglier and scrappier. Stoke had one equaliser disallowed for a push and then were awarded a penalty for another.
Both decisions were correct. When Bruno Martins Indi’s header struck the back of the net, the referee, Anthony Taylor, appeared inclined to award the goal but he was called over by his assistant who pointed out that in the build-up to the move Cesar Azpilicueta had been bundled over by Saido Berahino.
Moments later, there was another push, this time by Cahill on Jonathan Walters. This time the result was a penalty which Walters took himself. The striker stood, hands on hips, steadied himself for a moment and then drove his shot into the roof of Thibaut Courtois’s net.
If the main event was Stoke versus Chelsea then the sideshow was Diego Costa against the world. The man who has cast himself as the Premier League’s arch villain, appeared affronted by everything he encountered in the Potteries. He flounced, he gestured wildly, he was booked for dissent after tangling with Martins Indi, he played up to every preconceived image of him. You could have had a sweepstake during the interval as to what minute Costa would be dismissed.
One side did finish with 10 men but it was Stoke as Phil Bardsley was dismissed for a second bookable offence, wildly tackling Cesc Fabregas in stoppage time.
And yet in many ways Costa was more sinned against than sinning. Ryan Shawcross and Bardsley in particular targeted him and one high tackle from the latter could have done him serious damage.
Conte might have been tempted to withdraw Costa during the interval but he reappeared and appeared much calmer. He had a better game than Berahino, a centre-forward whose protracted transfer from West Bromwich Albion was supposed to have dragged Stoke to another level. He has yet to score a goal.