Ashley Cole picked one heck of a time to find his way back to the scoresheet for Chelsea, popping up in the 85th minute to hand the Blues all three points against Stoke City. Since the double-winning season under Carlo Ancelotti -- coincidentally the last time Cole had found the net -- the Potters have given us plenty of problems, and so it proved here as they shut us down pretty effectively for most of the match.
The possession, the corner count and the shot count all went Chelsea's way, but that doesn't come close to telling the whole story. The Blues had precious few chances to score, the result of some top defending but also significant flaws in Chelsea's attack. Meanwhile, whenever the visitors got forward, they looked fairly dangerous.
Prior to Cole's opener, it was Stoke who'd had the game's best chance when Jonathan Walters' free header clipped the top of Petr Cech's crossbar, and although they didn't have much of the ball (this is Stoke, after all), with the match level it never looked inconceivable that they'd score.
Chelsea, with both John Terry and Frank Lampard both out of the starting lineup, began the match strongly. Stoke were forced onto the back foot and conceded series of corners early on. But the thing about Stoke and corners is that they're generally pretty happy to allow set pieces and crosses, and so it proved here, with the Potters able to fend us off whenever we attempted to go the aerial route. Surprise!
Stoke have somehow perfected the art of playing football without bothering with the whole midfield thing, preferring to lump the ball long or dash up the wing whenever they grab possession (which is actually kind of fun when it's not happening to your team), and they were able to threaten Chelsea's back line throughout the match.
The Walters chance came -- surprise! Again! -- from a set piece, with the forward earning a free kick off Ashley Cole and then losing his marker (Fernando Torres) to rattle the crossbar, putting a huge scare into the hearts of fans worldwide in the process. It was a reminder that Stoke really don't care about possession numbers or territory -- give them the ball and they'll cause issues.
Chelsea's response was a divine pass from Juan Mata that picked out Torres in Asmir Begovic's box, but despite a very good first touch, the striker managed to completely miss the ball with his shot attempt, allowing the goalkeeper to collect. Other than that, pickings were slim. Although the Blues had ten shots in the first half, only one, an easily-saved David Luiz free kick from range, found the frame, and most of the rest were hopeless 40-yard efforts.
There were actually two primary issues here. The passing in the final third was off. Stoke packed the centre with players, and tricks and flicks from Eden Hazard, Oscar and Mata were failing to come off with alarming regularity. Torres, meanwhile, was being marked out of the game in the centre. Everyone else, however, was being far too direct. If the third band is trying to move a packed defence around, attempting to force a pass through the centre isn't going to work. Nor is shooting from stupid range.
The correct response was to add width and hope to spread Stoke out, and Roberto di Matteo did just that when he introduced Victor Moses for the ineffective Hazard. It had an immediate effect, forcing the Potters to defend wide, but also made them more dangerous when Chelsea lost the ball, which was depressingly often. The chances started coming at both ends, especially once Tony Pulis deployed the dangerous Matthew Etherington against Branislav Ivanovic on the right.
Bizarrely, Chelsea's best chance of the second half sans the goal itself fell to John Obi Mikel. who steamed onto a Fernando Torres pass and found himself in on goal. The slightly confused midfielder ended up dallying on the ball too long and letting Etherington block the shot. Other than that, the closest Chelsea had come to a goal was a penalty shout as Oscar surged into the box. Instead of giving the spot kick, Michael Oliver brandished a yellow for diving in the young Brazilian's direction.
But a miracle was coming. Juan Mata had worked hard throughout, the most involved of Chelsea's creative players following his extended rest, and he'd provide a moment of magic for the opener. With five minutes left, Mata's lovely touched momentarily took Stoke's whole defence out of the match, and Cole -- who hadn't scored since Chelsea's 103rd and last goal of the 2009/10 season -- was on hand to loop the ball in off Begovic from close range.
It was enough. Stoke pushed for the equaliser, and at one point the single worst short corner in history forced David Luiz to hack down Walters as he looked to break down the Stoke right. The defender was lucky to get away with just a yellow card, but his challenge did mean that we were treated to the amusing sight of Ryan Shawcross complaining about a tackle.
As it turned out, that was to be the last action of the match. It was a typical Stoke game, and Chelsea, thanks to Cole, managed to do just enough to turn it into a win. Next up: Wolves in the League Cup. Hopefully we look a little bit more chipper for that one.