A LATE Ashley Cole strike secured league leaders and Champions of Europe Chelsea all three points at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon . . . and in the process ended the Potters unbeaten start to the Premier League campaign.
Tony Pulis’ side matched their more illustrious opponents in the capital throughout the encounter, and will undoubtedly rue missing several glorious opportunities which could well have culminated in a totally different outcome had any of them been taken.
Republic of Ireland international Jonathan Walters rattled the crossbar from 5-yards during an entertaining opening 45 minutes, whilst Michael Kightly and Kenwyne Jones both forced Petr Cech into superb saves during the second period.
With both sides striving for a late winner, it ultimately proved to be the Blues’ day as some slick interchange culminated in Juan Mata sublimely freeing Cole, who dinked the ball past Asmir Begovic with just five minutes remaining.
As expected, Pulis opted to call up American international Cameron in place of the suspended Wilkinson ahead of the game, but that was the only change to the side that had drawn with Manchester City seven days earlier at the Britannia Stadium.
Therefore, Shotton was included among the seven substitutes, as was Jones in place of Jerome to give the Potters another attacking option.
There were two major surprises in Chelsea’s line-up with their two most experienced players, Terry and Lampard, left on the bench.
The Potters immediately found themselves under severe pressure as Chelsea forced two corners in the opening stages and although they came to nothing, the Champions League winners remained in the ascendency in the opening stages.
There was, however, brief respite when City strung together a move which led to Kightly cutting in from the left to try a long range shot which took a wicked deflection off Ivanovic and earned them their first corner of the match.
Although Whelan’s corner kick delivered from the right found Cameron in the box, he couldn’t make clean contact with his attempt at goal.
After Torres had headed over the bar from Mata corner swung in from the right, the Potters produced another promising move in which Cameron was released by Walters on the overlap and sent over a menacing cross.
Though that was comfortably dealt with by the Chelsea defence, they had considerably more difficulty in dealing with a Whelan free kick.
There were two City players unmarked when the Republic of Ireland international swung it into the box where Walters hit the bar with his header.
City were almost made to pay for that missed opportunity in the 26th minute when Mata played a perfectly weighted chip into the path of Torres who brought it under control with his chest but miscued his attempted shot much to Begovic’s relief.
The Potters were nevertheless seeing plenty of possession and another move featuring Cameron prominently on a run down the right hand side led to Wilson unleasing a thunderbolt of a shot from fully 25 yards which Cech grasped at the second attempt.
Chelsea’s skipper for the day was then called into action again to keep out a header from Crouch after Cameron had fired the ball into the box.
As the half drew to a close, Ivanovic’s venture forward caused an anxious moment, but after he had advanced into the box, his shot was blocked by Huth.
Brazilian Oscar, the hero of Chelsea’s Champions League meeting with Juventus, was at the centre of the action immediately after the break as he earned a yellow card for what the referee deemed to be a dive in the area as he burst past Whelan.
It did, however, require Begovic to make a crucial save moments later when Oscar latched onto a pass from Mata and hit a low shot to the ‘keeper’s left.
The Potters then had a good chance to go in front from a corner swung over by Adam to the far post where Crouch planted his shot wide of the target.
That was the cue for an encouraging spell from the Potters in which Crouch tried an ambitious volley after bringing the ball under control on the edge of the box before Walters stabbed a shot wide of the target after being found by the England man.
Pulis then signalled his intention by sending on Owen for Adam on the hour mark, although City immediately had some defending to do.
Mata managed to find space in the box, but when he appeared to be bearing down on goal, Shawcross arrived with a vital interception.
Begovic then made two vital saves to deny Oscar, getting down low to his right to keep out a low shot through a crowded area and then coming off his line smartly to grasp the ball at the Brazilian’s feet when he was found by Ivanovic.
Chelsea’s pressure was building and Oscar was again the main threat as he found enough space to flash a low shot wide of Begoivic’s right hand post.
Pulis obviously sensed that City could get more than a point out of the game and sent on both Etherington and Jones as replacements for Kightly and Crouch, but Di Matteo had similar ideas and introduced the pacy Victor Moses and stalwart Frank Lampard from the bench in a late bid to salvage the three points.
It proved to be a masterstroke by the Italian as Lampard set the ball rolling in the attack which ultimately secured the hosts all three points in the 85th minute.
The midfield maestro freed Ivanovic down the right flank and he drilled a dangerous ball across goal which Mata exquisitely flicked through to Cole, and despite the attempts of Begovic, the full-back managed to squirm the ball beyond the impressive stopper to raise the roof off of Stamford Bridge.
To their credit Stoke continued to surge forward and grab themselves what would have been a deserved leveller, but a stubborn Blues backline ensured there would be no more added drama during the final stages.