Stoke City: Battling City are so close to bridging the gap
JUST what were those stadium cleaners removing when disinfecting the plush seats in the Stoke dugout after the final whistle?
Some beads of sweat, a couple of tears and no doubt a few drops of bile too.
For Saturday's narrow and distinctly unfortunate defeat will have inspired a mixture of contrasting emotions from the vantage point of that visiting dugout.
Frustration at failing to convert the chances that might have brought victory, anguish at another late defeat at Stamford Bridge, exasperation at some of the Chelsea diving in the Stoke box and anger at David Luiz's late challenge on Jon Walters.
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There will also have been quiet satisfaction – once the dust has settled – at Stoke's evident progress in attitude and execution.
For this was no defeat waiting to happen, no backs-to-the-wall operation of the kind witnessed on so many journeys to the likes of Chelsea over the past four years.
Compact and disciplined defending was aplenty, true, and a willingness to concede possession in harmless areas.
But this time there was also an ability to attack with more than just set pieces as Stoke threatened with intent and numbers in open play too.
It was no complete coincidence, therefore, that it was from Marc Wilson's ineffective cross at one end that Chelsea were to score their 85th-minute winner at the other.
For it was a swift counter-attack, not sustained pressure, that climaxed with a right-wing ball being deftly flicked by the wonderful Juan Mata for Ashley Cole to dink over a diving goalkeeper from close range to complete the move he himself had begun.
The agony etched across the faces of the visiting contingent was matched only by the evident pain soon to stretch across the features of Walters after his attempted coup into Chelsea territory was halted by Luiz's lunge across his lower shin.
No wonder Tony Pulis was ranting on the touchline in a language more suited to a Downing Street checkpoint.
How inopportune that barely an hour after his challenge Chelsea should announce Luiz had signed a new contract spanning five years, only marginally longer than the gash above Walters' ankle.
Luiz had the good grace to apologise to Stoke afterwards and, it seems, openly admitted he was lucky not to see red rather than yellow.
Such misplaced lenience tainted a mixed performance from Michael Oliver, a young and often maligned referee who deserves enormous praise for booking Oscar in the second half for what the TV cameras proved was a blatant dive over a Ryan Shawcross challenge in the Stoke area.
That Chelsea's Italian boss Roberto di Matteo should criticise the booking after he claimed there was slight contact provided a telling contrast to the contempt with which his British counterpart held the Brazilian midfielder.
Such contempt was also fuelled to overflow by the sight of Oscar trying a similar trick later in the second period, while Branislav Ivanovic invited even greater ridicule for hitting the deck in each half in similarly embarrassing circumstances.
Plonk either of these two in a tight pair of Speedos and they'd both give Tom Daley a run for his money.
That either player should stoop to such tactics simply betrayed the frustration of a Chelsea side bursting with intricate and incisive interplay, but lacking the physical penetration to blow down Stoke's admirably organised resistance.
Only once from any period of sustained pressure did Chelsea truly discover space between goalkeeper and back four, but Fernando Torres failed to connect with Mata's chipped pass in the first half and Asmir Begovic scooped up.
Chelsea were otherwise restricted to shots from the edge of the box or beyond, but either a defender's torso or Begovic's smart reactions were equal to the task.
Stoke went closest to scoring from a set piece when Walters headed Glenn Whelan's curling free-kick against the bar in the first period, but their goalbound threats otherwise originated from some thoroughly decent football.
Michael Kightly alone saw a couple of shots blocked and a scrambled efforts pawed away by Petr Cech, while Matthew Etherington probably missed the best chance for 1-0 late on when skewing a rushed effort wide from a Kenwyne Jones knockdown.
Stoke's only major disappointment, scoreline apart, was Charlie Adam's curiously pedestrian performance in which one crossfield pass provided a rare reminder of a quality inhibited on Saturday by his sluggish possession, misplaced passing and even a shoddy touch.
He could have no complaints at being replaced by Michael Owen, therefore, and his replacement immediately slotted into an advanced midfield role which was to quickly require a defensive clearance with his first touch. Not quite the grand entry we had been dreaming about.
Defeat on Saturday, which prevented a Premier League record of five draws at the start of a season, also means zero points out of a possible 51 at the grounds of the current Champions League quartet of City, United, Arsenal and Chelsea over the past four years.
But the difference in quality in those fixtures is now resembling more of a gap than the chasm it once was.