Chelsea moved a significant step closer to the Premier League title after Gary Cahill’s late goal gave them a hard-fought 2-1 victory at Stoke to send them 13 points clear.
In a fiery encounter at the bet365 Stadium, Chelsea – who were without the injured Eden Hazard – took the lead through Willian’s free-kick in the 13th minute but Stoke hit back after Jonathan Walters, who was pushed to the ground by Cahill, scored from the spot seven minutes before the break.
The Blues came close to breaking the deadlock when Marcus Alonso’s free-kick struck the crossbar in the second half but Cahill struck the winner in the 87th minute to edge his side nearer to glory.
Antonio Conte’s side, who have 10 games left to play, now have a sizeable advantage over the chasing pack with Tottenham in action against Southampton and third-placed Manchester City hosting fourth-placed Liverpool, both live on Sky Sports on Super Sunday.
There were exuberant Chelsea celebrations at the final whistle after a victory which has inched them ever closer to a seemingly inevitable title triumph. Meanwhile, Stoke, who had Phil Bardsley sent off in the closing stages of injury time for a second bookable offence, stay ninth on 36 points.
Chelsea’s task was made even harder before the match with the news they were without Hazard, who according to Conte picked up “a little problem.”
He was replaced by Pedro in Conte’s starting line-up but it Diego Costa who was involved from the first whistle.
Costa had looked to be in one of those moods from the start as he clashed with Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron and Bruno Martins Indi and got short shrift from referee Anthony Taylor on each occasion.
It was Costa’s turn and pass on halfway which released Alonso on the left and the wing-back’s run won the Blues a free-kick on the left edge of the penalty area. It looked like the perfect opportunity to deliver a cross, but Willian had other ideas and whipped his free-kick around the two-man wall and past Lee Grant, who should have done better than to just help the shot on its way in.
Costa was involved again moments later, picking up a caution after remonstrating with referee Taylor after giving away a free-kick for a tussle with Martins Indi.
Grant atoned for his earlier error in the 30th minute, parrying Alonso’s effort and Stoke thought they had levelled in the 34th minute when Joe Allen’s corner was headed on by Cameron and then into the net by Martins Indi.
However, the flag appeared to go up and Taylor, after a discussion with his linesman, correctly ruled the goal out for Saido Berahino’s push on Cesar Azpilicueta.
They didn’t have to wait too much longer for an equaliser though after Cahill pushed Walters over in the box with Chelsea in no danger. Taylor pointed to the spot and Walters picked himself up off the floor to hammer the ball high past the dive of Thibaut Courtois.
Pedro blazed over a good chance to restore the visitors’ lead before Bardsley clattered into Costa to be booked in the final stages of a tempestuous half.
Chelsea started the second half brighter with Alonso only stopped by a terrific Bardsley challenge and David Luiz’s 40-yard free-kick almost catching Grant out.
There was not much the Potters keeper could do but be thankful Alonso’s 25-yard effort struck the crossbar.
Grant was up to the task when called on next as he made a brilliant one-handed stop at the near post to deny Pedro once he had been slipped in by Willian.
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It was far from relentless from the leaders but the pressure finally told in the 87th minute when the opportunity fell to Cahill, and the Blues skipper snatched it.
Erik Pieters conceded a needless corner with a poor back-pass to Grant and the Dutchman’s clearance from David Luiz’s header came to Cahill to fire home.
Costa struck a post after that yet he was a footnote in this contest, even when the red card came out, with Bardsley the recipient for a second cautionable offence as he fouled Cesc Fabregas.