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Three key battles to watch-out for as Chelsea welcome Stoke City

Premier League leaders Chelsea host Stoke City on Saturday afternoon aiming to extend their current twelve-game winning streak and further cement their place at the summit of English football.

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Antonio Conte’s side have won all of their previous twelve league fixtures since suffering a heavy defeat at the hands of Arsenal back in September, with their most recent victory coming against Bournemouth on Boxing Day. The Blues have proven to be more solid defensively and with a more dynamic attacking structure since switching to a 3-4-3 formation, keeping nine clean sheets and scoring twenty-eight goals during their current winning run.

Stoke City, meanwhile, have recovered from a poor start to the season and find themselves in the relative safety of mid-table. The Potters have lost just three of their last thirteen fixtures (against Liverpool, Arsenal and Bournemouth) but have only been able to accumulate two points from three games over the Christmas period so far. Mark Hughes has continued to switch between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-5-2 formation in recent weeks and may elect to persevere with the latter despite seeing his side comfortably beaten at Anfield last time out.

The Potters have a huge task before them if they are to put a stop to Antonio Conte’s run-a-way Chelsea train. Here are three key battles that will define the forthcoming contest at Stamford Bridge.

Diego Costa vs Ryan Shawcross

Spanish forward Diego Costa is expected to return to the starting line-up for Chelsea on Saturday after sitting out the Boxing Day victory over Bournemouth due to a slight injury. The bullish striker appears to be back to his best and is The Blues leading goal scorer this campaign having already found the net on 13 occasions in 17 league appearances. Physically imposing, powerful and clinical in front of goal, Costa will once again be the main threat for Antonio Conte’s side and the Chelsea supporters will be hoping that he returns to action by getting on the score sheet.

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Stoke City captain Ryan Shawcross has had a difficult year that has been characterised by injury, inconsistency and frustration. The iconic central defender has missed large swathes of 2016 with a continuing back injury and Mark Hughes will be hoping that he can get his skipper on the pitch more regularly in 2016. Against Liverpool last time out, Shawcross had an evening to forget after producing an ineffective performance that was capped off by gifting a goal to Daniel Sturridge with a poor back-pass. However, in contrast, the 29-year-old was immense at the heart of the Stoke City defence when they held Southampton to a goalless draw two weeks ago despite playing three quarters of the game with ten men. The Potters’ captain will need to be at his very best if his side are to come away from Stamford Bridge with a positive result.

Eden Hazard vs Joe Allen

What a difference a year can make. Eden Hazard personified the failings at Stamford Bridge last season as the defending English champions failed to replicate their performances of the previous campaign and slumped to a mid-table finish that cost Jose Mourinho his job. The Belgium attacker had been the Premier League’s most outstanding player in the 2014/15 season but looked completely devoid of confidence, motivation and enthusiasm during the following campaign. However, under Antonio Conte the 25-year-old looks rejuvenated and has already played a key role in Chelsea’s twelve-game unbeaten run and has contributed a total of 9 goals in 17 league appearances (compared to just 4 throughout the entirety of the previous campaign). Hazard is a prominent figure in The Blues’ attack and his movement, skill and goal scoring instinct will be key if Chelsea are to break down what is bound to be a stubborn Stoke City defence.

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Since arriving at Stoke City from Liverpool for a deal worth £13,000,000 in the summer Joe Allen has been one of The Potters’ outstanding players so far this campaign. The Welsh midfielder has thrived under the guidance of his fellow countryman Mark Hughes who has elected to deploy him in a more advanced, attacking midfield role. Allen has already scored 5 goals in 17 Premier League appearances with his technical quality, defensive tenacity and work ethic making him a definitive favourite amongst the supporters. On Saturday the “Welsh Xavi” will need to produce an all-action display that not just offers defensive cover for the Stoke City back-line, but also emphasises positivity on the ball and gets his side playing on the front foot.

David Luiz vs Jon Walters

One of the most surprising transfers to take place during the summer was the return of Brazilian defender David Luiz to Stamford Bridge in a £34,000,000 move from French champions PSG. The 29-year-old had already experienced a relatively successful three-years in West London between 2011 and 2014 but, when employed as a central defender, he had developed a reputation for being prone to making costly errors. However, under Antonio Conte and with two seasons of development across the channel under his belt, Luiz now looks a much-improved player. Much of this is down to Conte’s 3-4-3 formation, where Luiz has greater freedom to play from the back and drive into midfield knowing that he has two additional central defenders to provide cover. Against Stoke City, the Brazilian will have plenty of opportunity to receive possession and start attacks from deep, however, he must also maintain his concentration defensively to deny the visitors an easy route into the contest.

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Republic of Ireland international Jon Walters continues to be a key figure both on and off the pitch for Stoke City. The 33-year-old, now in his sixth season with The Potters, continues to be one of Mark Hughes’ go-to men despite the arrival of illustrious players such as Bojan Krkic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Wilfried Bony. The experienced striker has started all fouir of Stoke City’s Premier League fixtures over the Christmas period, finding the net on two occasion but his all-round contribution as a hard-working, target man is what adheres him so much to his manager. Walters is set to lead the Stoke City attack once more on Saturday and will be given the task of using his physicality to pressure the unpredictable David Luiz into costly errors.

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