Antonio Conte was so consumed with the joy of Gary Cahill’s winner that he grasped the lip of the dugout and heaved himself up until his chin was above the roof, celebrating the kind of victory that tells a manager his team have got what it takes to win a Premier League title.
There were minutes to spare when Cahill lashed in a ball loose in the Stoke City area, and Conte’s reaction was exactly what you would expect of a highly excitable Italian who has just seen his team take a major step towards the title. They had to fight the home side every inch of the way but these are the sort of victories - unexpected, hard-won, and heart-breaking for the opposition - that make a successful season.
For a short time there was a faint ray of light briefly glimpsed by the chasing two of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City but it was extinguished with that winning goal. Chelsea are now 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League table and all the questions will be asked of their pursuers when they come to play on Sunday.
They leaders won without Eden Hazard, left behind in London having suffered a calf injury in training, and they did so against a Stoke team who had been unbeaten in their previous eight home league games. It was a Stoke side who tried to get under the skin of Chelsea – Diego Costa in particular – and the game ended with one of those booked for kicking the striker, Phil Bardsley, dismissed in injury-time for a second yellow card.
Cahill had conceded the penalty from which Jonathan Walters scored a first-half equaliser, and there were times when it looked like Stoke might hang on. With around 20 minutes of the game left, Conte even abandoned the 3-4-3 formation which has taken English football by storm this season and switched a more conventional 4-2-3-1 with Cesc Fabregas off the bench to be the playmaker.
It was Fabregas whom Bardsley took down to earn his second booking of the game, his first having come for a foul on Costa before the break. The Brazilian had just about kept a lid on it in what proved an emotional first half for him, during which he was engaged in a running battle with a variety of Stoke defenders and midfielders.
“People are trying to say we targeted him,” Mark Hughes said later, “absolutely not. I played in that position many, many years and when I look at his qualities as a striker he is outstanding. But he has elements of his play you don’t need. It takes away from his image as a player. It’s not necessary…he went over too easily on numerous occasions and he stays down.”
Conte was more philosophical about the approach taken by Stoke. “It is not easy to answer. The rule of this kind of game is that it is normal to make a player angry and to get him to react and to commit another foul. That’s normal. The great news is that Diego is showing himself to be a great player in this way. I know in other seasons that sometimes he has been given two yellow cards. This season I have been pleased with him, and his behaviour.”
The task of going after Costa was shared out between the Stoke players with Bruno Martins Indi putting the Chelsea man on the ground first. Pieters put him into the advertising boards. Ryan Shawcross kicked him on the turn. Bardsley got that first booking for a high boot. Geoff Cameron nudged and goaded Costa whenever he got the chance.
Costa could not always prevent himself from reacting, and when he was booked for diving in the 16th minute, Stoke smelled an opportunity. Although Costa was not blameless, it was him battling alone against a number of opponents who were taking turns to try to bring him to the boil.
The first Chelsea goal was a terrible mistake by goalkeeper Lee Grant who flapped at a near post free-kick from Willian that should have been simple to deal with and pushed it into his own net. That said, it had been another foul from Stoke that had created the opportunity, a push from Marko Arnautovic on Marcos Alonso.
Chelsea had kept Stoke at arm’s length for much of the first half but let them back in for the last ten minutes. Anthony Taylor only disallowed a Martins Indi headed goal after a long consultation with his assistant who seemed to say that Saido Berahino had pushed Cesar Azpilicueta when the ball was headed back by Cameron.
Hughes did not agree with that decision and he also claimed that Cahill should have been sent off for shoving Jonathan Walters for the penalty. That was a push in the back and arguably no attempt to play the ball. Walters lifted a high shot past Thibaut Courtois and Stoke were back in it.
A deflected Willian free-kick after the hour beat Grant and struck the bar but otherwise, Chelsea were struggling to find a way through. With around 20 minutes left, Conte changed his formation. “When you want to take more risk and when you want all three points and not one, you have to try to change,” he said. “When you change there is that possibility to score a goal but also to concede. Sometimes I prefer to take a risk.”
It was another substitute, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who forced Pieters to give away a corner from which the winner came. David Luiz headed the corner goalwards and Pieters just prodded the ball weakly towards Cahill to score. There might have been more goals for Chelsea as Stoke finally collapsed but the job was already done.
“Today it is an important win against a strong team and in a great atmosphere,” Conte said. “In Italy we would call this place ‘molto caldo’”.
Conte and the fans
Antonio Conte is giving the Chelsea fans a lot of love on his way off the pitch. They're enjoying themselves and rightly so! #STKCHE— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) 18 March 2017
FT: Stoke 1 Chelsea 2
Antonio Conte's side move 13 points clear with a hard-fought win in the Poterries.
Red card for Stoke
Bardsley chopped down Fabregas right in the corner. Second yellow, and he is off without any protestation.
Time on ball (at full time)
Average touch positions (full time)
Red card! Phil Bardsley sent off for Stoke
Phil Bardsley is sent off by referee Anthony Taylor for his second bookable offence.
The referee's busy at bet365 Stadium
Anthony Taylor brandishes his seventh yellow card of the game - Cesc Fàbregas is the latest name in the book for Chelsea.
90 minutes - four minutes added
Pedro curls a left-footed shot wide of the post. Shawcross has gone up front now for Stoke as they try to salvage something in the dying embers.
Chelsea almost wrap things up however. Costa strikes the foot of the near post from just inside the area.
Conte's side streaming forward now, this time Loftus-Cheek brings a fine save from Grant down low to his left.
That is a punch in the kidneys for Stoke, who were enjoying their best spell of the second half prior to the Chelsea goal. Fine margins, and all that. Chelsea withstood the pressure well though, which is the difference between them and their title rivals.
Gary Cahill scores what is surely the winner
Fabregas' corner was met by the head of David Luiz about 10 yards from goal. Pieters blocked it, but could only clear as far as Cahill who slammed into the roof of the net from six yards out.
1-2. Gary Cahill has put Chelsea ahead in the dying minutes!
It's been a mismatch at bet365 Stadium so far
It's been all Chelsea, with the visitors racking up 15 shots so far - Stoke have managed just four in reply.
Stoke most definitely in the ascendancy now. Walters is in behind with Diouf steaming through alongside him, but Walters just over hit the pass with the outside of his foot. In fairness, it was a difficult one to execute.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is on for Matic. Looks like he has moved into a No.10 position with Fabregas dropping in alongside Kante,
Stoke produce another spell of pressure. Chelsea just about deal with Arnautovic's corner. Diouf can look clumsy but he has given Stoke a better outlet compared with Berahino.
Mark Hughes exchanges words with Azpilicueta on the near touchline over a throw-in decision. That man could have an argument in a telephone box - Hughes that is.
Azpilicueta clipped a cross in from the right, but Costa was always back-peddling and his header lopped over the bar.
Solid save from Grant. Fabulous hold up play from Costa who layed it off to Willian who played a one-touch pass to Pedro. Put his laces through the left-footed striker but Grant stood strong to save at the near post.
Time on ball (60 - 75 min)
Willian got the bar-line down the left and pulled back towards the on-rushing Fabregas. The former Arsenal midfielder was well marshaled by Allen however who blocked his effort.
Fabregas on for Chelsea in place of Victor Moses. That's a back four now for Chelsea with Azpilicueta going to right back, and Fabregas playing in an attacking midfield role in front of Kante and Matic. Pretty much a 4-2-3-1.
A rare spell of pressure from the home side, but Kante is there to stop Allen getting a shot away from the edge of the D.
Moments later, Matic lets fly from 25 yards but his low strike is straight at Grant.
Trademark Chelsea counter attack as Willian plays Pedro in behind in the inside right channel, but he is cynically felled by Pieters. He picks up a booking. Free-kick about 24 yards out, just right of centre.
Alonso stepped up, left-footed, and got his effort over the wall but it crashed into the crossbar. That is the closest Chelsea have come in the second-half.
That Stoke penalty was there only shot on goal. It's been a real feature of Chelsea's success that- how few shots they allow on their goal.
What an effort from David Luiz. The free kick was fully 45 yards from goal, but he punted it with the inside of his foot and the ball dipped just in front of Grant. Bounced up and off his chest to safety.
Berahino is replaced on his full home debut and is replaced by Diouf.
This has been a very bitty second half with the ball spending lots of time either in the air or dead due to stoppages.
Time on ball (45 - 60 min)
Searching pass from Azpilicueta towards Willian but Pieters did well to intercept.
Chelsea fans signing for Fabregas to be introduced, which might be a good policy with the game locked in a stalemate currently. Shawcross tries to wind-up Costa by making sure their legs are tangled but the forward does not rise to the bait.
Pieters down after an innocuous looking clash with Willian, but returns to the field and is good to continue.
Chelsea have threatened from the left
This would be a surprise were Stoke to get something -they have collected just six points from 14 matches against top-six opposition this season. Chelsea dominating possession at present, without testing Grant too sternly.
Never thought I would say this, but Arnautovic had put a real shift in from a defensive perspective. Is Eden Hazard up to playing half an hour or so to push Chelsea over the line?
Pedro robbed Shawcross as he tried to usher the ball out for a throw-in and drove into the penalty area but Martins-Indi nipped in to stop a shot on goal.
Joe Allen took a risk playing a back pass around the corner with Costa around, but it did run through to Grant.
We're under way again
Stoke kick-off in the second period.
That was like watching Tony Pulis' Stoke
There has been plenty of talk about the evolution of Stoke's style under Mark Hughes, but that was a throwback to their performances in their early Premier League years.
HT: Stoke 1 Chelsea 1
Feisty first-half at Stoke finishes honours even. The officials have been kept very busy, and Costa has been on the end of some rough treatment.
Time on ball (first half)
45 minutes +3
Every 50:50 is an almighty scrap at the moment. Like West Brom earlier in the day, Stoke showing mid-table opposition at this time of the season is not necessarily the easy game it looks.
Average touch positions (half time)
Four minutes stoppage time
Another stoppage as David Luiz runs into the back of Berahino.
Not the highest quality game but the needle makes it thoroughly entertaining. Just the sort of contest these Stoke fans raise their voices for.
Fine chance for Chelsea. Luiz picked out the run of Pedro with a lofted ball over the top. The Spaniard cut back inside and curled a right-footed shot over the bar.
More controversy. Costa and Shawcross have a coming together with some Chelsea players suggesting he went over the top. Replays suggest there was not too much in it.
A few minutes later, Bardsley rakes his studs down Costa's calf. He has been targeted in this game.
The shot count is similar
Stoke and Chelsea are evenly matched in attack so far - the vistors have fired in four shots to the hosts' one.
36 minutes - Penalty Stoke - Walters converts
Stoke have another free kick after a Victor Moses handball. A very innocuous incident, but Cahill penalised for a push on Walters. The Irishman steps up and drills the penalty home. Cahill not complaining, which is odd because it looked a very harsh call.
Stoke level it up with a goal from Jonathan Walters: it's 1-1.
A first attempt at goal from Stoke - Chelsea have had four shots of their own so far.
Better from Stoke. They took a quick free-kick to free Arnautovic. Kante cut out his low cross to concede a corner.
Then the controversy begins. Corner was an out-swinger and was met by a Stoke head. Martins-Indi was on hand in front of Courtois to glance up but the flag is raised and the goal is chalked off. The Dutchman was clearly onside, but Berhaino was off. Berahino gave Azpilicueta a nudge in the back which is the infringement the referee and linesman saw.
Chelsea enjoying a strong spell in the right-hand corner and the resulting corner runs all the way across to Costa. He plays Matic in the left channel with a cute reverse pass and Bardsley lunges in to give a free-kick away. Not too far from there Willian scored from.
This time Chelsea produce one from the training pitch. Cut back to Pedro who chipped the ball into the area for Alonso. He was in, but Grant stood up to save his right-footed shot.
Chelsea enjoying plenty of touches of the ball so far
Chelsea have had 255 touches of the ball compared to 165 by Stoke.
Time on ball (15 - 30 min)
Luiz and Walters shake hands and are both able to continue.
Stoke just about still in the game. Matic punched a nice ball through the lines for Costa who was able to turn and run at Stoke's back four. Skipped by a couple of challenges but the ball just ran away from him before he could get a shot off. David Luiz now down nursing his shoulder after an aerial duel with Walters.
Batshuayi is warming up on the sidelines which might be a sign Conte is concerned about Costa's discipline. Stoke fans angry with Taylor for getting in the way of a promising attack.
Lovely football by Chelsea. They played a long ball forward towards Costa that held up on the breeze. He kept hold of it and fed Willian. Looked as if the midfielder was shaping to shoot despite the tight angle, but he back-heeled into the path of Victor Moses whose shot was blocked.
Willian's strike the only shot on goal of the game so far. Unspectacular stuff but Chelsea look fully in control of the game. Willian nearly picks out Costa with a chipped pass over the top but it just skips away from the striker.
Costa fumes with Anthony Taylor because he has not got a foul after Martins-Indi grappled with him. Unusually for him this season, he does pick up a booking for dissent.
Willian definitely meant that
Free kick was around 18 yards out but well to the left of the penalty area. Goalkeeper Grant was anticipating a cross and edged towards his left, but Willian saw him and reversed a low shot towards the near post that crept in. A second of silence in the ground as people realised what had happened but it's Willian's goal.
Time on ball (0 - 15 min)
Willian strikes early to open the scoring - it's 0-1 to Chelsea.
Lovely vision from Costa to pick out Alonso who was in acres of space on the left flank. Arnautovic has a couple of go's at hauling him down and the second is penalised. Free-kick Chelsea.
Diego Costa and Ryan Shawcross involved in some handbags in Stoke's six-yard box. Referee has a word with the pair who do have history: remember Costa questioning the Stoke man's personal hygiene?
Alonso tries to arc a ball in behind Stoke's back four towards Pedro but it had just a little no much weight. Stoke working extremely hard in the early stages.
Chelsea starting to piece together some possession, but Kante's pass to towards Costa was mis-directed. Stoke have a throw-in deep in Chelsea's half that Bardsley hurls to Arnautovic in the penalty area but Cahill wins the physical battle.
Lively enough start from the home side but Arnautovic is flagged for offside in the right channel.
Chelsea get us under way on an immaculate surface at Stoke.
Teams are on their way out
We're almost ready to go, as league leaders Chelsea look to go 13 points clear at the top of the table.
Can Berahino revive his career?
Saido Berahino starts today based solely on talent should have been in Gareth Southgate's thoughts given the number of injuries England have among their strikers. He desperately needs a run of games to win over a skeptical public.
Chelsea's impressive record at Stoke
The bet365 Stadium has a feared reputation during Stoke's early years in the Premier League, with several of the big clubs falling foul of their direct play and the Potteries' howling winds.
That has dissipated slightly, and Chelsea have usually prospered there. The Londoners have only lost twice at Stoke since their promotion to the top flight in 2008.
Landmark for Azpi
There may be no Eden Hazard or John Terry today, but another player who is growing in popularity at Stamford Bridge is Cesar Azpilicueta. He has grown into a remarkably reliable defender and celebrates his 150th appearance today. Here he is looking really happy with his mate, Gary:
The teams are in - and there's no Eden Hazard for Chelsea
Here they are:
Chelsea 11 v Stoke (3-4-3): Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Willian, Diego Costa, Pedro. #STKCHE— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) March 18, 2017
What is it?
It's the Premier League clash between Stoke City and Chelsea at the bet365 Stadium.
When is it?
It's this Saturday afternoon, March 18.
What time is kick-off?
3:00pm is the scheduled match start time.
What TV channel is it on?
It isn't on television, being a 3pm-er on a Saturday.
If you bookmark this page, though, you can return from 2pm on the day to enjoy our minute-by-minute build-up and match coverage.
What is the team news?
Mame Biram Diouf is doubtful with a knee injury, while Xherdan Shaqiri and Glen Johnson are battling to regain fitness after thigh and shoulder injuries respectively.
Though Jack Butland has made positive progress in recovering from a fractured ankle, the England stopper will not be line for selection until April at the earliest.
Stephen Ireland is still some weeks away from returning as he continues rehabilitation after a double leg-fracture.
Chelsea have a concern over Victor Moses, who will have to battle through a calf injury if he's to make the team against Stoke.
There have also been unconfirmed reports that Eden Hazard has not travelled to Stoke.
Kurt Zouma replaced Moses late on in Monday's FA Cup win over Manchester United, though it remains unclear whether Chelsea boss Antonio Conte would ask him to deputise in the less-than-familiar right-wing-back role from the start on Saturday.
What are they saying?
Bruno Martins Indi, Stoke City defender
We are talking to each other, the club and me. I have the intention to stay [beyond the end of the season-long loan]. We want to see what is going to happen.
I was following Stoke City before I was here, and I knew the way the manager [Mark Hughes] wants to play.
He gave me a lot of confidence to come here and he trusted me, I am happy that I could give him that back.
Eden Hazard, Chelsea forward
For me, it is a privilege to play with this manager, and I hope we can achieve something together.
He gives the spirit to the team. Of course, we have worked a lot and hard. But if that’s the key to winning games, we will work hard.
The manager wants me to pass, to make assists, create chances - and I do more because I think the position is more central and I don’t ask all the time for the ball at my feet.
- Stoke have only ever won two of their 17 Premier League meetings with Chelsea.
- Chelsea's last win at the bet365 Stadium was a 2-0 win in December 2014, en route to winning the Premier League title.
- If Diego Costa scores against Stoke, he will have reached the mark of 50 Premier League goals in 80 games - only Andy Cole, Alan Shearer, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Fernando Torres managed it in fewer appearances.
What are the odds?
Stoke to win: 5/1 Draw: 3/1 Chelsea to win: 8/13
What's our prediction?
Stoke 1-3 Chelsea
Chelsea will be drawn into a more open game than they might like when Stoke grab a goal - but the visitors will have plenty of joy attacking a defence that has already leaked so many goals to top-six sides this season.
Agree? Tell us, with this: