ROMAN ABRAMOVICH has finally got his Chelsea wish — but he does not look that happy about it.
By MARK IRWIN
Since he took control at Stamford Bridge nine years ago, the hard-to-please Russian has demanded sexy, entertaining football.
Well, the good news for Abramovich is Roberto Di Matteo finally has his team playing just like Arsenal. The bad news is it means lots of intricate passing on the edge of the area with little end product.
And Abramovich’s permanent frown, as he looked down on this unconvincing victory from his lofty perch up in the West Stand, was worth a million words.
Ashley Cole’s 85th-minute goal was just about enough to see off a doggedly determined Stoke and move Chelsea three points clear at the top of the table.
But do not be fooled by their lofty league position. Abramovich certainly is not.
The owner paid one of his dreaded visits to the training ground the other day to ask why they had surrendered a two-goal lead against Juventus on Wednesday.
He also wanted to know why Di Matteo is still not getting the best out of Fernando Torres, despite spending £80million on new signings this summer.
Yet the answer is blindingly obvious. It does not matter who is feeding the ammunition to Torres when the £50m striker is in such wretched form.
Di Matteo, predictably, claimed to be delighted with the Spaniard’s performance and disputed suggestions Torres was anything but magnificent as his lone striker.
He also insisted his team will be even more impressive when his new signings have had more time to gel. And that one is probably true.
For the first time this season, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata started together as part of the most expensively assembled attacking line in football.
It was also quite likely the smallest side the Blues have fielded for some time and certainly a case of men against boys compared to Tony Pulis’ giants.
Yet it was not a lack of physical presence that was the problem. Quite simply, while Daniel Sturridge is ruled out by a hamstring injury, Torres is Plan A through to Plan Z.
When Didier Drogba was allowed to leave in the summer, Torres was assured he would be the main man this season and appeared to respond to the vote of confidence with goals against Reading and Newcastle.
But he has now gone right back into his shell and, after four games without a goal, is wearing that all too familiar put-upon look again.
He had two decent first-half opportunities but headed over from Hazard’s early corner and then failed to make a decent connection from Mata’s clever chip over the City defence.
Jon Walters should have claimed the lead for the visitors when he was picked out by Glenn Whelan’s 19th-minute free-kick but sent his close-range header against Petr Cech’s bar.
And Stoke were out of luck again just before the break when Geoff Cameron hammered a cross into the chest of Michael Kightly. That forced Cech into a quick reaction save to keep out the deflection.
Against such a physically imposing side as the Potters, it was a curious day for Di Matteo to ‘rotate’ John Terry to the subs’ bench — particularly as the captain could soon be on a long break courtesy of this week’s FA disciplinary commission.
Frank Lampard was also given a rest and it was only when he was sent on for the final 10 minutes that Chelsea finally opened up a Stoke back four impressively marshalled by captain Ryan Shawcross.
In the home side’s defence, at least they never threw in the towel. And their persistence was finally rewarded when Branislav Ivanovic’s low cross was exquisitely flicked on by Mata to leave Cole clear through on goal.
The England full-back last scored for Chelsea back in May 2010 but showed an impressive calmness as he placed his shot beyond stranded Asmir Begovic.
It was a desperately cruel outcome for Stoke, who are still waiting for their first victory of the season and have won only one of their last 18 games.
Boss Tony Pulis was jumping up and down on the touchline at some of Chelsea’s antics and was particularly upset by theatrical penalty appeals from Ivanovic and Oscar. He was no happier with David Luiz’s stoppage-time foul on Walters.
In the end, the Blues picked up the result which will allow them to watch today’s events at Anfield and the Etihad nicely relaxed.
But it will not always be this comfortable. Arsenal away next week will give us a better indicator of where Chelsea are right now.