The goal drought finally broke after 310 minutes and, like rain in the desert, nothing could have been more welcome for Chelsea than Didier Drogba's late strike.
They had absolutely dominated a weakened Middlesbrough side, who failed to record a shot on target, but as they entered the last 10 minutes, this expensively assembled side were staring at their third consecutive scoreless draw.
"The question is about mentality and self-belief," said the Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho. "The team is not scoring goals, and so when the goal arrives..." he puffed out his cheeks in an internationally expansive expression of relief. "Jesus," he added for good measure. The goal came in the 81st minute when Paulo Ferreira won a free-kick on the right. Frank Lampard shaped to loft it in but, at the last second, Drogba dropped back to the edge of the area. He was unnoticed by all but Lampard, who drilled the ball low, and Drogba powerfully side-footed in for his second League goal of the season.
"It was about communication," Mourinho said. "Sometimes not spoken communication - just a connection."
Chelsea had started so imperiously, passing the ball crisply across the back and through the midfield. Alexei Smertin and Ferreira fizzed in wicked crosses from the right, and Middlesbrough looked frighteningly overawed.
The home side were not helped by two late withdrawals and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink's 10-minute absence for 10 stitches following an early collision with John Terry's boot, but still it took Chelsea half-an-hour seriously to threaten to score.
It was another Lampard free-kick, driven low and half stopped by Franck Queudrue as Middlesbrough defended desperately. Drogba slammed the ball against the underside of the bar, and it bounced out to Claude Makelele who knocked the rebound wide.
Middlesbrough's woes increased when Ray Parlour was stretchered off before half-time, and all that could be summoned from the bench was the effete Joseph-Desiré Job.
The Riverside is just a couple of miles from Valley Road where the late Brian Clough was born, and Middlesbrough was his first club, where he scored 204 goals in 222 games at the end of the 1950s.
Yesterday, though, Middlesbrough had a pale shadow of a strike force. Mark Viduka was very ineffectual, and, as Hasselbaink became increasingly exasperated, they had nothing to offer. Indeed, they didn't even have a spare shirt to give the blood-covered Dutchman when he was sent from the pitch to change. He reappeared pulling on the injured Ugo Ehiogu's unused No 4 strip.
There was little change in Chelsea, either. Damien Duff, starting for the first time this season in place of Joe Cole, only occasionally flickered into life on the left. One flicker was a lovely cross in the 72nd minute, but Drogba missed poorly.
The game seemed destined for the most disappointing of draws, but then Drogba dropped deep and buried Lampard's free-kick.
"Chelsea controlled the game, created chances and failed to score," said the Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren. "We weren't good enough to win, but we were nine minutes away from 0-0, and, considering all the disruptions, we would have been happy with that."Reuse content