Stoke City-Chelsea Preview
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- LONDON (SE) - This re-tooling on the fly seems to be working just fine for manager Roberto Di Matteo and Chelsea.
With positives to take from a disappointing draw in their Champions League opener, the Blues try to stay atop the Premier League on Saturday when they host Stoke City at Stamford Bridge.
Not much was expected of Di Matteo in the middle of last season when he stepped into the breech following the departure of the well-hyped yet enigmatic Andre Villas-Boas for Chelsea (3-1-0). Yet the Blues wound up the unexpected winners of Europe's most prestigious club tournament on the foundation of rock-solid defence and timely counterattacks, stunning hosts Bayern Munich in the final.
That title allowed owner Roman Abramovich to begin the process of breaking up the team, moving on without such high-profile stars Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Salomon Kalou. In their place came talented youngsters such as Eden Hazard and now, Oscar.
The Brazilian made a lasting impression in his first start for the Blues on Wednesday, staking them to a 2-0 lead before Juventus eventually rallied for a 2-2 draw in the opening group match of Champions League play. Oscar's second goal - coming two minutes after the first late in the opening half - drew raves from the fans, and praise from his manager.
"It was a great debut for Oscar," said Di Matteo. "He did a perfect job tactically and scored two goals. It's great to see we have a player like him in our ranks. He is a big talent and he has a bit of everything."
Before Oscar's breakout performance, Hazard had been Chelsea's best newcomer, teaming with a resurgent Fernando Torres and franchise flagbearer Frank Lampard to help Chelsea claim 10 points through four matches. Their perfect start, however, came to an end with a scoreless draw at Loftus Road versus Queens Park Rangers last Saturday in a game more scrutinised for QPR's Anton Ferdinand snubbing pre-game handshakes with John Terry and Ashley Cole.
While the Blues have gone a week without a win, Stoke City (0-4-0) haven't claimed three points in a league match since beating Wolverhampton in April last season. The Potters, though, became the first side to open a top-flight season with four draws since Crystal Palace in 1992 after getting a point last Saturday versus reigning champions Manchester City in a 1-1 draw at Britannia Stadium.
Peter Crouch scored in the 15th minute, and the Potters were able to absorb City's possession after an equaliser later in the first half to gain another point at home against a high-profile opponent after limiting Arsenal to a scoreless draw Aug. 26.
"We were maybe slightly fortunate at the end, but I think we had done enough to deserve that little bit of luck," goalkeeper Asmir Begovic told the team's official website. "I thought we were absolutely superb against the champions, and were fully deserving of the point we earned."
Playing superb has not been a virtue associated with Stoke City at Stamford Bridge, where they have been held off the scoresheet in four consecutive matches and outscored 14-1 in dropping five straight there - highlighted by a 7-0 thrashing in 2010.
Chelsea took four of six points from the teams last season, breaking down the 10-man Potters for a 1-0 home win on a goal by Drogba. The teams also played to a scoreless draw at Britannia.
Stoke's last league win in London came in 1974 in the First Division, and their last win there in any match was in the 1995-96 League Cup.
Updated September 20, 2012