15:00 KO (BST); Saturday 23rd September; bet365 Stadium (Stoke, England)
Stoke are yet again having a peculiar season. Having shown a lack of inspiration throughout the team which has seen them gift wins to Everton and Newcastle on the road, they have risen to the title of valiant underdogs in taking four points at home from Arsenal and Manchester United.
Their third home game this season comes against Chelsea and they’ll be hoping that once again they can overcome the odds to surprise a side with lofty ambitions.
After recovering from an opening day shock, Chelsea will be determined to get their title hopes back on track after a goalless draw against Arsenal last weekend which ended a three-game winning streak.
In a match which Conte will realise his team were lucky to take a point from, Arsenal will re-enforce the need for his players to continue improving.
With a tricky schedule to negotiate in the coming weeks, a match against a team they’ve only lost to twice in 18 Premier League meetings (W13 D3) should not bring complacency.
Last time out
Bristol City 2 – 0 STOKE CITY (Carabao Cup)
The biggest shock in the third round saw Bristol City knock Stoke out of the competition with two quick goals at the start of the second-half.
Having only made six changes to his previous side that faced Newcastle, Hughes made relatively few amendments to his side compared to many other clubs in the tournament.
The game was neatly summed up with almost the final kick when Saido Berahino missed an open goal which would have merely acted as a consolation rather than a base to fight back from.
While Lee Grant and Kurt Zouma were two players to leave the pitch with some justification for holding their heads high, their teammates all gave sub-par performances which contributed to their sides downfall.
Kevin Wimmer proved to be the biggest scapegoat for the Potters who, after seeing an attacking header crash against the woodwork in the first half, found almost every other touch desert him during another poor showing which was lacking in technique and composure.
CHELSEA 5 – 1 Nottingham Forest (Carabao Cup)
A night of good news for Chelsea was headlined by the safe return of Eden Hazard and a hat-trick from young striker Michy Batshuayi.
In a twist on other cup stories, Conte fielded a relatively strong side with Kenedy and Charly Musonda bled into the team.
All three players made a meaningful impact with Hazard lively, Kenedy on the scoresheet and Musonda lighting up Stamford Bridge.
Without a youth academy star making the journey into the first team since John Terry emerged as a bright, young thing, Musonda was the name on everyone’s lips at the final whistle.
Producing a cultured performance which belied his age, his quick feet set up the move which led to Kenedy’s goal before claiming a goal himself.
With Conte admitting after the game he wishes to bring these two youngsters into the squad during this campaign, this weekend will be too soon, but we could hear their names more often as the season progresses.
Geoff Cameron (hamstring) and Kurt Zouma, who is ineligible to face his parent club, will all be unavailable for Mark Hughes to leave a dilemma regarding how he sets up his defence, possibly prompting him to rush Ryan Shawcross (back) into the team quicker than he would prefer.
Ibrahim Afellay (knee) remains sidelined, otherwise, Hughes has a full team to choose from throughout the rest of his side.
Having picked up a red card in the draw against Arsenal, David Luiz is suspended for this game.
Danny Drinkwater (calf) and Pedro (ankle) are also unlikely to feature for the Blues with Antonio Conte having to shuffle his team carefully to plan for the midweek journey to Atlético Madrid.
Given their opponents in the week, Eden Hazard may drop back to the bench as he continues his return from a fractured ankle.
Key Battle: Kevin Wimmer vs Álvaro Morata
Having failed to settle into his new club following an £18m move from Tottenham in the summer, Wimmer will face his biggest challenge yet for the Potters.
Without Kurt Zouma and Geoff Cameron in defence, Wimmer will be expected to lead the backline against the Blues’ forwards, a team who have scored 11 goals in their previous three games in all competitions, one of which being a goalless draw against Arsenal.
While Stoke voices have been quick to defend their recruit, Wimmer will need to repay the faith that Hughes and Stoke have placed in him when they brought him into the club.
Morata has enjoyed a good start to life in the Blue of London, offering something different to what the fans came to expect from watching the soon to depart Diego Costa week in, week out.
With great skill and movement, it remains to be seen whether he can match the goal-scoring prowess of Costa and whether his palette of skills translates into the Premier League.
After receiving criticism following a big miss against Arsenal, goals will cast the deciding vote in an argument which could go either way and a goal this weekend will help both Morata and Chelsea.
Same old problems
In defeat to Newcastle last weekend, the main difference between the two teams was the effort exuded by their players. While the Potters’ ex-striker Joselu showed a lack of quality, he more than made it up for his deficiencies with an application and determination that was noticeably missing from the performances of his old teammates.
With new signing Jesé Rodríguez particularly looking lacklustre, it appears to be a deeper lying problem within the club rather than a problem afflicting a minority of players in the dressing room.
Having assembled a squad full of star quality and high-profile names from the footballing world, Hughes is again looking at motivating his players to work as a team rather than a collection of individuals.
With his key players failing to deliver at a level which reflects their potential, the problem is two-fold and has shown little sign of being remedied, unless playing teams at the top of the table that is.
End of a chapter
Just prior to playing Atlético Madrid in this season’s Champions League, Diego Costa has been granted permission by Chelsea to travel ahead to Spain on a one-way ticket.
While the mooted deal is still subject to the striker passing a medical and agreeing personal terms, his return to the club is all but signed in ink, with a fee of £55m being widely reported.
It puts to an end the acrimonious dispute between player and manager, allowing all concerned parties to move on with their own narrative.
While Madrid get the striker they want, Costa gets his return in time to stake his claim for a place back in the Spanish team ahead of the World Cup next summer, while Chelsea pick up an extra £23m on the fee he originally cost them in 2014.
PREDICTION: Stoke City 1 – 3 Chelsea
Stoke are liable to be dangerous given they will search for a reaction to the recent defeats by both Newcastle and Bristol City. Whether they have the quality to match their determination remains to be seen, especially considering their best player of recent weeks will miss out due to the terms of his loan deal.
Chelsea are a team who are still building up steam and should surpass the level they spent much of last season at, however, with the Madrid game approaching there’s always the risk that a distraction could see them drop points against Stoke.
I’m backing Conte to not allow his stars to do that, with the fiery Italian proving a motivating factor on the sidelines and his players not wanting to disappoint him before sharing the dressing room with him.
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