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Chelsea stay top as Cole breaks Stoke resistance

Chelsea's quest for style means more than integrating recent recruits: it also, apparently, entails teaching old dogs new tricks. After 85 minutes of frustration at Stamford Bridge, Ashley Cole, who had not scored since an 8-0 win over Wigan in May 2010, popped up and finished like a natural striker, dinking the ball over Asmir Begovic to sicken valiant Stoke City and give Chelsea a three-point reward for an uncertain performance.

Chelsea went into the match on top of the league but that fact did not fool anyone into thinking this evolving team is flawless. The demolition by Atletico Madrid in the Super Cup, followed by haphazard draws with QPR and Juventus, left plenty of room for doubt about the rebuilding at Stamford Bridge. The team's transition is far from complete.

Manager Roberto di Matteo rotated his squad by leaving John Terry and Frank Lampard on the bench and deploying the three creators who have been bought to add panache to the team's play. Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard began together for the first time, forming a trio of inventors just behind Fernando Torres.

The home side began well and forced early corners but the effects of their unfamiliarity with each other soon became apparent, as passes were mislaid and intentions misread. There also seemed to be a systemic problem as, despite Stoke's solidity in the centre, Chelsea persisted in trying to pick a way through the middle, occasional bursts down the right by Branislav Ivanonic being the only use that was made of the wings. On the one occasion in the first half that Chelsea's intricacy was enough to undo diligent Stoke, Torres fluffed in all too familiar fashion. He made a clever run to collect Mata's looped pass and killed the ball beautifully on his chest but then embarrassed himself with a miskick from six yards. "Didier Drogba, he would have scored that!" taunted Stoke fans.

The effect of that mishap on Torres's already bruised confidence seemed clear later in the half when he twice shunned chances to shoot and passed instead.

Stoke could have been in front before that, Jonathan Walters having powered a header against the bar in the 19th minute after he and Robert Huth were left unmarked to attack a Glenn Whelan free-kick. Not until the second half did Chelsea's conjurers summon magic. Beguiling interplay between Hazard and Oscar bewitched the Stoke defence before the Brazilian collapsed in the box under a challenge from Ryan Shawcross. The referee made Oscar a grouch by booking him for simulation.

Oscar came close to cheering himself up two minutes later but Begovic blocked his well-struck shot from the edge of the area and, in general, Chelsea still looked short of ideas. Di Matteo sought to stimulate improvement by replacing Hazard with another summer recruit, Victor Moses.

The Nigerian's first contribution was to unhinge the visiting defence with a run through the middle in the 67th minute, before slipping the ball to Oscar, whose 18-yard shot brought another block from Begovic.

Oscar's influence was growing, but that of Torres was receding to the point that the striker was irrelevant as Chelsea chased victory in the closing stages. Daniel Sturridge is expected to be fit next weekend, which means Di Matteo will have a big selection decision for the clash with Arsenal.

"I don't care who scores," said Di Matteo. "We've got goals coming from all over the team and that makes us more unpredictable."

It was certainly hard to see Cole's decisive contribution coming. He had seldom ventured forward until appearing at the edge of Stoke's six-yard area five minutes from time. He finished with aplomb, clipping the ball over Begovic after receiving a deft flick from Mata.

Di Matteo insisted the win was deserved but acknowledged his team must improve. "It's the first time we've tried that line-up [with Hazard, Mata and Oscar behind Torres]," he said. "It certainly needs more work and practice to be able to tactically integrate them perfectly into our system, but it's just a question of time."


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