Historically, Chelsea teams have rarely made things easy and they did not do so for either their manager or a divided crowd here yesterday. Promising beginnings and a goal tapped in by Demba Ba suggested West Bromwich Albion might be swept aside, but failure to score a second one spawned impatience and put the spotlight and pressure back on Rafa Benitez later on.
Those supporters apparently craving a defeat to hasten his exit became torn between that and wanting Frank Lampard to acquire his 200th goal for the club, which would be only two behind Bobby Tambling's club record. Neither outcome materialised, just a vaguely satisfactory victory that carried the team into third place before Tottenham's derby against Arsenal this afternoon. Assuming Benitez is given more time – and no assumption carries any degree of certainty at this club – he must now negotiate two games with Steaua Bucharest, the clear leaders of the Romanian League, an FA Cup tie at Old Trafford next Sunday, and then the continuation of a favourable run of fixtures that should keep Chelsea in the running for a top four finish.
Defeats by Albion hastened the downfall of the two previous Chelsea managers, Roberto di Matteo and Andre Villas-Boas – the latter a year ago today. Those games were both at the Hawthorns where Chelsea have recently struggled, although Stamford Bridge has never been a successful hunting ground for yesterday's visitors, whose last League success here was as long ago as 1978. Another one would have been undeserved, for they could easily have been three goals behind at half-time before threatening only late in the game to capitalise on the increasing tension around the ground.
With their leading scorer Romelu Lukaku unable to play against his parent club, Shane Long was flying solo in attack and found that a demanding assignment against Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz. In the end Petr Cech needed to make two saves all afternoon, both from direct free-kicks. "When you're only one goal behind you've always got a chance," said the West Bromwich manager Steve Clarke, a far more popular figure here than Benitez after 12 years as a player and eight as coach. His disappointment and complaint yesterday was: "We went to sleep at a set-play."
Benitez picked Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata, much as Di Matteo had often done, and their interchanging and interpassing in the first hour at least was often a delight. Half a dozen chances materialised before the interval and Albion would have been beyond salvation but for some good work by their goalkeeper Ben Foster, who has made himself available for England again and was being watched by his former West Bromwich manager Roy Hodgson. Early on he saved at close range as Ba crossed for Oscar; the Brazilian then set up Mata to volley wide before a goal arrived to settle the crowd and the team for a while.
Luiz had won a corner with a fierce free-kick that Foster just managed to turn round a post after a deflection. From the short corner between Lampard and Oscar to which Albion were slow to react, Oscar's deep cross was headed back by Luiz for Ba to tap in. Mata was just wide after more incisive passing, and after Oscar's volley from a corner – looking like another smart training ground move – was blocked, so were shots from Mata and Cesar Azpilicueta from a move involving all three of Chelsea's midfield musketeers.
Amid this domination, Albion's only threat was Steven Reid's 25‑yard free-kick in the sixth minute, turned over the bar by Cech. There was nothing else from the visitors until a similar effort by their own controversial figure, Peter Odemwingie, in that uncomfortable last 10 minutes. His shot was dipping under the bar until Cech turned it for another corner, from which he was almost beaten by a misplaced header from his own full back Azpilicueta.
What Chelsea had needed was a goal round the hour-mark to avoid any tension. It was promised; Lampard was denied his 200th goal because Mata was rightly given offside, and when Jonas Olsson bundled into Hazard no penalty was given, offering Benitez the chance for some theatrics.
So impatience spread and the chants with it, the most hostile of them countered by support for the team, though never the manager. Fernando Torres received an equally mixed reception, coming on for the last three minutes, by which time Oscar had missed two more chances to calm everyone down.