It took the collector’s item that is an Ashley Cole goal to ensure that Chelsea will still top the Premier League whatever their Manchester rivals manage from tricky assignments today.
Statisticians were checking the last time they had last played out successive goalless draws when the England left-back finished off one of their more coherent moves by dinking the ball over Asmir Begovic from close in for his first score since May 2010.
Significantly, one international colleague, Frank Lampard, had just been summoned from the dug-out, where he had sat all afternoon beside another one, John Terry, who was then called on to preserve the lead in the final minutes. The key was that the ball had at last been moved wide rather than pushed through the centre, however elegantly, by an unbalanced midfield. A trio of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard in a line behind Fernando Torres may have looked appetising, but proved an embarrassment of very expensive riches.
As against Juventus in midweek Hazard, gifted as he is, declined to stay wide on the left, repeatedly cluttering up the middle where a solid Stoke defence repelled them with ease for much of the afternoon. There was a perfect example of the problem midway through a dull first half, when Mata moved sideways in possession, looking to spread the play to the left flank only to find there was nobody there; Hazard had wandered inside again.
“We certainly need more work to integrate into our system,” Chelsea’s manager Roberto di Matteo admitted. “Sometimes we certainly lacked a bit of width so we needed the full-backs to provide us with that.”
The imbalance essentially stemmed from resting Lampard, which meant Ramires, who has come to look comfortable playing wide on the right, had to sit deeper alongside Jon Obi Mikel as a defensive midfielder. Mata was more disciplined on the right but too often Chelsea were left relying on Branislav Ivanovic and Cole to push forward.
On the few occasions that Robert Huth and the equally solid Ryan Shawcross were troubled, Fernando Torres’s sad lack of confidence was all too evident and Chelsea only improved when Hazard was replaced by Victor Moses, who produced an encouraging cameo for the second weekend running with his direct running down the right. Unlike the game at Queens Park Rangers last Saturday, there was reward this time.
In the 84th minute, Cole was involved early on in a slick passing move in which Lampard, newly arrived, helped the ball out wide, Ivanovic laid it square and Mata with a deft back-heel found Cole, who had kept running, unmarked and onside in the six- yard box to score.
It was hard on Stoke, who had begun the campaign with four successive draws. Jonathan Walters sat deep on right, breaking when he could, Charlie Adam slung diagonal balls towards Peter Crouch, and they could have been ahead from the 20th minute with a set-piece. Cole conceded a free-kick which Glenn Whelan placed right into the danger area, where Walters rose highest to head against the bar.
Tony Pulis, who may have succeeded Martin O’Neill as the most demonstrative Premier League manager, showed his frustration but had little else to concern him at that stage. Chelsea struggled to create anything more than half chances, the earliest two falling to the out-of-touch Torres. He headed Mata’s corner too high and after taking down the same player’s lovely chip on his chest, missed his kick completely. “Didier Drogba, he would have scored” the visiting fans mocked; a good many home supporters must have thought the same.
Little actually reached Begovic in goal, whereas Petr Cech did at least have to hold Marc Wilson’s 30 yarder; the goalkeeper then fumbled an attempted header by Michael Kightly, who was on the end of a fiercely hit cross by Geoff Cameron, the American full-back.
The home team’s frustration, keenly felt by a quiet crowd, was summed up early in the second half when Oscar was rightly shown a yellow card by Michael Oliver for his outrageous piece of simulation in attempting to win a penalty. As the rush of substitutions began it was notable that Stoke’s were in attack. Pulis, quite happy with the way his defence was coping, sent on a promising little striker called Michael Owen for his longest run yet; he duly laid the ball out for a cross by Cameron, the other substitutes Kenwyn Jones and Matthew Etherington almost contriving a goal from it.
“I’m very disappointed to lose,” said Pulis. “We’ve played well against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea now and today we just haven’t had the breaks. It’s probably the best we’ve played against Chelsea in the five years we’ve been in the Premier League.” Stoke have yet to beat them, but Di Matteo was showing unjustified optimism in suggesting that from the start of the second half “I thought it was a question of time.”
That time was running out fast before the decisive intervention from an unexpected source.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Cole; Ramires, Mikel (Lampard, 81); Mata (Terry, 88), Oscar, Hazard (Moses, 61); Torres.
Stoke (4-2-3-1): Begovic; Cameron, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson; Whelan, N’Zonzi; Walters, Adam (Owen, 64), Kightly (Etherington, 71); Crouch (Jones, 75).
Referee: Michael Oliver.
Man of the match: Mata (Chelsea)
Match rating: 5/10