Warning: these are still very early days for Chelsea's young manager but nevertheless, as Andre Villas-Boas dropped to his haunches in the technical area here yesterday, he will have reflected that this was not what he had in mind for his grand entrance to English football.
Villas-Boas is a sober young coach whose professional life is built around modern tactical theories of possession and territory, laid out in dossiers and post-grad theses. He won four trophies in his only season as a manager of a top-flight professional team. But he proved yesterday that when push comes to shove, especially when the pushing and shoving involves Stoke players, he can be rattled like anyone else.
In an ideal world, Villas-Boas would have breezed into Stoke yesterday, taken the three points and headed back to London with his career as a Premier League manager safely launched and his team off to a flier.
As it turned out, the reality was very different. For much of the first half Chelsea floundered under Stoke's bombardment and, when finally they did take control after the break, they could not score the goal that would make the difference.
It is not in Villas-Boas' nature to complain. Why should it be? His career so far has been one of unparalleled success. Yesterday, he tried his best to be polite, he noted Stoke's impressive home record last season and observed that this would be a difficult place to come to win regardless of whether it was the first game of the season or not. But eventually he could help himself.
"We have a referees' visit this Wednesday, so... the point I want to make, when you play in difficult games like this one, is the amount of pushing and grabbing in the box," he said. "It's out of this world. We had to deal with Stoke's set-plays and were competent enough to avoid the dangers they create from those plays, but I think there's a limit to the pushing and grabbing that makes it impossible. Referees have to pay attention to these kind of details."
Of course, he has a point but he might as well complain about house prices in London or the rain in Manchester. Roman Abramovich did not appoint him Chelsea manager ahead of every other willing candidate in world football in order that he could tell his Russian boss that Stoke are a bit physical on set-pieces. Abramovich appointed him to find a way to win those kind of matches, and spare him the details.
In criticising Stoke, Villas-Boas needs to be careful that he does not invite greater scrutiny of his own defenders' transgressions. Had Stoke pushed the boundaries of fair play? "Not of fair play, pushing the boundaries on pushing and grabbing, for sure," Villas-Boas said. "It's difficult [for the referee]. You have to keep your eye on the ball, and be aware of certain situations. In this case, maybe the referee is in need of some help.
"I may raise this on Wednesday, but it's difficult. When you know that this is one of the main strengths of Stoke. [Could we have more] fourth-referee awareness? A bit more focus on the situation? But, no excuses. We were able to defend those set-plays, but I think it was happening at our [attacking] set-plays as well."
No excuses. Abramovich might as well have it nailed above the dressing room door. It was a tough start for Villas-Boas because he will know that every one of his predecessors appointed by Abramovich won their first game in charge of Chelsea, with the exception of Avram Grant and that is not a group of one Villas-Boas will particularly relish joining. Jose Mourinho, as if anyone needed reminding, beat Manchester United in his first game at Stamford Bridge.
In Villas-Boas' defence, without Romelu Lukaku yet and no other major new signings, he is still trying to reinvigorate the same group of players who fell short last season. Yesterday he picked Fernando Torres ahead of Didier Drogba and was rewarded with what was arguably the best Chelsea performance on the day. Yet by the end of the game he had reverted to an approach that has been tried before: Torres, Drogba and Nicolas Anelka on the pitch together.
Leaving out Drogba and Anelka are bold decisions from Villas-Boas and he needs them to work out to reinforce his credibility. His team were narrowly denied a penalty when Frank Lampard went down just a bit too easily under Marc Wilson's challenge in the 55th minute. The most credible appeal was when Torres was brought down by Ryan Shawcross deceptively close to the edge of the area, the only one Mark Halsey called wrong.
As for Stoke, they had Asmir Begovic to thank for keeping them in the game in the closing stages. He tipped a shot from John Obi Mikel over the bar in the aftermath of Lampard's penalty claim and then made an even better save from Anelka in the 72nd minute.
It will have meant a great deal to Tony Pulis not to lose on his home patch in the first game of the season against a manager 20 years his junior. No-one could pretend that this was anything other than a robust performance in the Stoke style, but there were flourishes too. Matt Etherington was excellent until he was substituted in the 62nd minute with what looked like a dislocated shoulder but it will be assessed this morning.
There were times in the first half when you wondered what Torres might do with the crosses provided by Etherington and Jermaine Pennant but Stoke could not sustain that after the break. They lost Rory Delap to injury with about 19 minutes to play and so went another crucial part of their attacking strategy for the day.
There was defiance about Torres in his post-match interview in which he said, with a serving of irony, that he had not "forgotten how to play and score goals." "Last season was a season to forget," he said. "A lot of things have happened but it's in the past and I am looking forward."
Villas-Boas has placed his faith in Chelsea's £50m man yesterday and – in all but scoring a goal – he was not found wanting.
Again, these are early days but against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, Villas-Boas needs to get Chelsea going. The gap to Manchester United, it will not have escaped their attention, is already two points.
Man of the match Begovic.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee M Halsey (Hertfordshire).
Attendance 27,421.Reuse content