STOKE CITY'S hearts were broken by Chelsea again for a second successive season after a last-ditch strike cruelly denied the Potters a point from an entertaining affair at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The hosts had looked on course to bring an end to Carlo Ancelotti's side's impeccable start to the season, only for Frenchman Florent Malouda to strike deep into second half stoppage time, after Didier Drogba had exquisitely cancelled out Abdoulaye Faye's first half opener.
Tony Pulis attempted to tackle a ruthless Chelsea side, who were looking to equal a club record 10 successive league victories, by introducing a new wing back like tactic in a 5-3-2 formation.
The new-look City side featured two players making their first league starts with former Blue Robert Huth joining Danny Collins in a five man strong back line. They were partnered by skipper Faye, Ryan Shawcross and Andy Wilkinson.
In midfield Dean Whitehead returned to the fray after sitting out the last two games, alongside Republic of Ireland international Glenn Whelan and Rory Delap. James Beattie provided the City boss with a late boost as he declared himself fit after a series of sugar injections had cleared a troublesome knee injury. Partnering him up front was the in-form Dave Kitson, who had scored in each of his last two games.
Pulis' decision to tinker with his formation meant there was no place in the starting line up for Ricardo Fuller, Tuncay, Matthew Etherington and Liam Lawrence, as they all took up places amongst the substitutes bench which also included Steve Simonsen, Danny Higginbotham and Danny Pugh.
A typical Britannia Stadium atmosphere welcomed the two sides on to the pitch as City's supporters sounded in fine-form with a roof raising rendition of 'Delilah'. Each and every one of Chelsea's players announced over the PA system was booed and jeered by the fans as they responded to Pulis' call to make it as intimidating as possible for the league leaders.
Whelan had Chelsea's backline under severe pressure in the seventh minute as his dangerous free-kick had to be cleared over his own bar by England skipper John Terry, with Kitson looming just behind him.
Moments later City were gifted the first real opportunity of the game by Branislav Ivanovic after the Serb mis-controlled Shawcross' long punt forward straight into the path of Beattie who crashed an effort wide of the right hand post.
In the process of taking the shot, the former England striker landed awkwardly on his right ankle, and following a subsequent spell of treatment from the physiotherapist, he was forced off on a stretcher with Fuller being introduced as his replacement some five minutes after he went down.
Carlo Ancelotti's side gave the Potters a taste of their own medicine in the 18th minute when Ivanovic shaped up to launch a long throw into the penalty area, however, Sorensen was alert and charged off his line to gather the ball into his palms. Referee Mike Dean was soon dishing out yellow cards aplenty with firstly Salomon Kalou being cautioned for obstructing a Delap throw-in and then Shawcross' name was taken after he lunged in on Drogba just outside the penalty area.
Chelseapushed the hosts deep into their own half but City's defenders coped amicably to soak up any pressure which was coming from the likes of Frank Lampard and Drogba. In fact, whilst it was the London side dominating possession, the Potters looked equally as threatening up front with both Kitson and Fuller looking lively.
A series of corners for City rarely threatened Cech's goal, however a moment of madness from the highly-rated stopper just after the half hour mark led to the Potters taking a surprise lead. Whelan delivered a teasing ball into the penalty area, which the Chelsea stopper looked ready to collect, however, he stuttered and allowed Faye to nip in and glance a delightful header over him and into the back of the net, much to the delight of the 25,000 or so supporters donning red and white striped shirts.
The visitors immediately set off in search of an equaliser and only a superb save from Sorensen down at his near post denied Ashley Cole, whilst Drogba wasted a good opportunity shortly after. The Denmark stopper soon pulled up though, holding what appeared to be a groin strain, meaning Simonsen was brought on for his first league appearance of the campaign.
The former Evertonian was soon called into his first piece of action, but unfortunately for the Potters it was to pick the ball out of the back of the net after Drogba showed his class by turning Faye and smashing an unstoppable effort into the top left hand corner from 12-yards right on the stroke of half time.
The goal certainly gave the visitors fresh hope of continuing their winning spree following the break, but they struggled to find a way through a brave and dogged City backline. Huth was looking as solid as a rock during an impressive first outing, whilst Collins brought undoubted quality and pace to the side which managed to frustrate Kalou and Malouda. When they did finally manage to cut open a water-tight defence Lampard couldn't find the target as he drilled the ball well over Simonsen's bar from 15-yards.
A brief moment of respite for the backline almost resulted in City's second goal of the afternoon, however, Kitson saw his close range header scrambled away off the line by a mixture of Cech's palm and Terry's right boot.
That scare reminded the visitors that they couldn't rest on their laurels, and they suddenly began to really ask questions of Pulis' side.
Ancelotti introduced Ghana international Michael Essien and last season's top scorer Nicolas Anelka shortly after the hour mark in a bid to grab that crucial goal, whilst Pulis responded with a statement of his own by bringing on Turkey international Tuncay with Kitson making way. France star Anelka showed his prowess immediately by linking up well with Drogba and forcing Simonsen into a smart save after he cracked an effort goal-ward from 25-yards.
The City keeper was then forced to rely on Faye and Huth to deny both Drogba and Kalou from close range after the influential Lampard found both players inside the 6-yard box during a spell of severe pressure. Tuncay used his trickery and pace to full effect to catch Chelsea on the break, but Cole tracked back brilliantly to make a last ditch challenge just as he looked set to fire an effort goalwards.
With time fast running out for the title hopefuls, Ancelotti threw on Juliano Belletti as one last roll of the dice and it would ultimately be his long throw which resulted in Malouda smashing the ball through a crowded penalty area and into the back of the net, almost identically to Lampard's late winner at Stamford Bridge in January.