It has been a while since Didier Drogba has pulled off his shirt at the end of a game and handed it over to a member of his club's travelling support but then it has been a while since Chelsea have been as good as they were last night.
The prospect of Carlo Ancelotti's team defending the Premier League title they won last season remains a distant one but had they not won they might as well have dropped the trophy off in Manchester on the way home. Instead, they are clinging on and in the four goals there was the glimmer of hope that, in the words of their manager, they have "turned the corner".
There have been false dawns before in the darkness of Chelsea's decline of the last three months but nothing as encouraging as this, a four-goal victory over a Bolton side with a decent home record. And if Chelsea's fans were looking for a sign that things really are looking up then Drogba's brilliant opening goal was a reminder that, for all their problems, this side still has some formidable individuals.
With the expectation that the Benfica defender David Luiz will arrive this week, perhaps even in time for next Tuesday's trip to Sunderland, then it would seem that Chelsea – from Roman Abramovich down – are not prepared to give up without a fight. There was no Frank Lampard last night but the club hope he will be back in the side for Saturday's FA Cup fourth round game against Everton.
If Chelsea are to close the gap on United then the six points at stake between the two sides before the end of the season are crucial and last night, for the first time in a long time, they looked like the kind of side that could potentially beat United. Petr Cech and Michael Essien, as well as Drogba, looked much more like their old selves.
That is not to say they dominated Bolton who had by far the best of the first half. Instead, as Owen Coyle later bemoaned, at the critical moments of the game Ancelotti's team just had the quality that set them apart. Bolton worked hard at opening up Chelsea but every time the home side put a foot wrong they found themselves, in their manager's words, "brutally punished".
Just eight points from the relegation places and without a win in the league since Boxing Day, these are nervous times for Coyle's side. Last night the club said farewell to the late Nat Lofthouse with a touching tribute from fans outside the stadium's reception and a minute's silence before the game. They would like to have honoured his memory with three points and until Drogba scored there looked every chance they might.
On more than one occasion, Cech kept Chelsea in the game though he would have been able to do nothing about Kevin Davies's header in the first three minutes had it not been offside. The Bolton captain misjudged the target when Martin Petrov, who gave Jose Bosingwa a difficult time, crossed and Johan Elmander flicked on.
It got worse for Davies whose wayward pass started the move for Chelsea's third goal but in those early stages there was nothing to suggest that this would turn into such a stroll for the away side. They just about hung on at times. It was a mistake by the Bolton right-back Gretar Steinsson that gifted possession to Florent Malouda on 11 minutes which began the sequence that ended in Drogba's goal.
The Chelsea striker still had a lot to do when Florent Malouda fed him the ball 35 yards out. He struck a shot that dipped over Jussi Jasskelainen and was hit so hard that the goalkeeper never really knew what to do about it. It was Drogba's ninth league goal of the season and, he said, his best so far.
Drogba hinted later at a lack of confidence that may explain his form this season. "I think I had the confidence to try it," he said. "You have to try if you want to score. The manager said to me that I needed to shoot when I had the chance and I did that. Maybe I've not been shooting enough. I was maybe thinking about it too much and not making the right decision but this time I decided to have a go."
On 31 minutes, Elmander might have scored with a header that Cech saved well. Had it gone in then Chelsea risked losing their momentum. Ten minutes later they scored a second. From a corner the ball dropped to Malouda on the right side of the goal near the touchline. His first shot was blocked by Gary Cahill but he sneaked the second in at the near post.
It was a moment that epitomised Bolton's bad luck. "We were punished every time," said Coyle. "Every bounce of the ball went against us. It is hard to take. We had as many goal attempts as they did but they were clinical. That's why they are champions."
The third started with Kevin Davies who inexplicably passed the ball across the pitch to Nicolas Anelka and then watched in growing horror as Chelsea built the move that ended with the same Frenchman scoring.
From Anelka to Malouda and on to Essien, who crossed to Drogba. When he could not get a clean shot on goal the ball spilled loose and Anelka, who had caught up with play, tidied up the move with a finish inside Jaaskelainen's right post.
Ramires scored the fourth, his first for Chelsea, after Anelka's shot had been blocked by Paul Robinson on 74 minutes. Again, Essien was crucial to the move. Before then Cech had made another good save at the feet of Elmander and, for the first time in a long time, Chelsea looked unbeatable. That it was their first back-to-back league win since October tells you that this has been a long wait to return to form.
Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, Knight, Robinson; Taylor, Muamba (M Davies, 63), Holden (Blake, 87), Petrov (Rodrigo, 63); K Davies, Elmander. Substitutes not used Bogdan (gk), Ricketts, Blake, Cohen, Wheater.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Ramires (Kalou, 77), Mikel (McEachran, 72), Essien; Anelka, Drogba, Malouda. Substitutes not used Turnbull (gk), Ferreira, Sturridge, Bruma, Kakuta.
Possession Bolton 44% Chelsea 56%.
Shots on target Bolton 8 Chelsea 11.
Man of the match Drogba. Match rating 7/10.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside). Attendance 22,837.