If evidence were needed of Chelsea's capacity to overcome the impact of Fifa's transfer embargo and mount a sustainable title challenge, Florent Malouda's injury-time winner provided it by continuing their 100 per cent winning start to the season. Demonstrating considerable resolve against a whole-hearted Stoke City, it was a victory which set down a marker to their Premier League rivals.
Stunned by the sanctions imposed by Fifa this week, which have banned Chelsea from signing any new players until January 2011, it is a fair bet manager Carlo Ancelotti would have chosen any fixture other than a trip to the Britannia Stadium to finish off a difficult week.
Yet after falling behind to a Stoke side strengthened by £18.5m worth of signings in the recent transfer window, Chelsea delivered a performance sure to provoke unease among their rivals after equalling a club-record 10th successive victory in the top division. "We got what we deserved," Ancelotti observed.
Once the Premier League's most enthusiastic transfer window shoppers, Chelsea's victory underlined the strength of the squad available to Ancelotti even if their appeal to Fifa fails to reduce their ban. They have already been told by the game's governing body they will not be allowed to recall players on season-long loans to boost a squad which will be depleted by the African Cup of Nations in January.
Mindful of Tuesday's Champions' League opening match against Porto, particularly after two international matches in the last week for the majority of his squad, Ancelotti shuffled his pack to rest Michael Essien, Ricardo Carvalho and Nicolas Anelka and still emerged with the three points.
As if facing a Chelsea side with a point to prove was not a big enough challenge, Stoke lost both goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen and forward James Beattie before the interval through injury, yet they still came within minutes of taking the first points of the season off the Premier League leaders.
Beattie passed a late fitness test on a troublesome knee but lasted only eight minutes. Chasing a long ball, he panicked Branislav Ivanovic into a mistake but pulled his half-volley wide and the subsequent collision ended his contest.
Stoke overcame that setback impressively, testing Chelsea's defence with a series of set-pieces which led to the breakthrough. A cleared corner was whipped back into the penalty area by midfielder Glenn Whelan and captain Abdoulaye Faye's uncontested header put them in front.
Their ability to defend that lead was tested further by the loss of Sorensen as the interval approached after he clutched his right hip after a clearance. Given eight minutes of extra time because of the two injuries, Chelsea took advantage with Didier Drogba running on to Frank Lampard's intelligent reverse pass to fire past substitute goalkeeper Steve Simonsen from the left-hand side of the penalty area.
Set-pieces remained Stoke's best chance of restoring their lead and twice they went close with Robert Huth heading over against his former club from another Whelan corner, while Petr Cech made a good, low save from Dave Kitson in similar circumstances.
The introduction of Essien and Anelka midway through the second period provided them with a renewed impetus as they strived for a late winner. Faye, the outstanding leader of a defiant five-man Stoke defence, made blocks to deny both Lampard and Drogba as both sides becoming frantic in the final stages.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis introduced new signing Tuncay to try to ensure a greater share of possession without great success for the final stages as Chelsea continued to press for a winner which finally presented itself to Malouda on the edge of the box in injury time.
"It's desperately disappointing because they scored a late winner against us at Stamford Bridge last season," said Pulis. "When you play against the best teams they wear you down. It is very hard to keep p ossession so you get tired chasing around and that's why the top-four teams get a lot of late goals."
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Faye
Match rating: 7/10
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