Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 Chelsea 2: Frank Lampard spent so long celebrating with the Chelsea fans in the Steve Bull stand at the end of the match yesterday that Andre Villas-Boas gave up waiting for him on the pitch and walked down the tunnel with the rest of his victorious team, leaving his match-winner to come back in his own time.
The pair of them shaking hands or embracing, as Villas-Boas had done moments earlier with a bare-chested John Terry, would have been the picture to soothe the bubbling stories of discontent at the club but it never happened. Lampard wanted his moment with the Chelsea fans and he was not for rushing back. Chances to score the kind of crucial goal he did have been fewer than ever under this new young manager.
It was a day that began with another story about the rift between Villas-Boas and senior players at Chelsea, one which prompted an indignant denial from the manager. It ended with the pressure being lifted from Villas-Boas by Lampard's goal. And along the way there were a few subplots that made this another fascinating day in the development of Chelsea under Villas-Boas.
It was not just Lampard's lingering celebrations with the Chelsea fans that meant he avoided encountering Villas-Boas in the centre of the pitch. There was also a strangely contrived goal celebration following Ramires' first for Chelsea on 50 minutes when a group of players – mainly the Lusophone contingent, it should be said – headed over to the touchline for a man-hug session with Villas-Boas and his assistants.
On that occasion, John Terry arrived at the party too late and Lampard did not even make it over at all. In his post-match press conference, Villas-Boas avoided giving Lampard any personal credit – although, it should be said, that is common with this Chelsea manager. Nevertheless it provoked an outraged response from Phil Thompson on Sky Sports. This is not an issue that is likely to just go away.
That was the politics of the Chelsea camp; the game was another story altogether. Having lost so disastrously at home to Aston Villa, with Lampard gifting the opposition the third goal on that occasion, this game looked like it could be yet another cock-up from Villas-Boas's players when Stephen Ward scored an equaliser on 72 minutes.
Before then, Chelsea had much the better of the second half. They worked hard to push Wolves back and played like a team that knows it is in urgent need of a win. Fernando Torres had one of his better days, accelerating past defenders from a standing start and attacking without the moping that has become commonplace for him.
The Chelsea goal had come from a corner that was poorly defended by Wolves. Terry jumped to challenge for the ball, did not reach it and it came through to Ramires. The Brazilian midfielder, who had been impressive all afternoon, held off Ward and blasted the ball into the roof of the Wolves goal.
Chelsea had spent the first half making little progress until the later stages when Jose Bosingwa and Terry had both come close. Before then the referee Peter Walton had struggled to keep a lid on the game during a flurry of bookings for five players across both teams, the most controversial of which was for Lampard for a tackle on Adam Hammill.
Given how fervently the Wolves manager, Mick McCarthy, had argued against Stuart Attwell's decision to dismiss Nenad Milijas at the Emirates last month, you had to wonder whether that would play on Walton's mind in Lampard's case. The studs of one boot were raised, they connected with Hammill and it was a decision that could go either way – even Lampard said later "my heart was in my mouth".
That it should be Lampard who came back to score the winner would, you suspected, only further stoke McCarthy's indignation. However, by the time of his post-match press conference he had made a decision not to go down that route. "It [the Lampard decision] is irrelevant," he said. "Defend the bleeding cross. They shouldn't have scored and I should have been sat here talking about a 1-1 draw."
It provoked a bout of bad feeling between the players during which five in all were booked in the space of eight minutes. Ashley Cole landed a high kick on Kevin Doyle and then lashed out when he was on the ground. He should have been booked but only Doyle was shown a card for throwing the ball at Cole. Karl Henry and Oriol Romeu also followed into the referee's book.
The game was low on quality with Didier Drogba and Daniel Sturridge, both injured, notable absentees. That is the last Chelsea will see of Drogba for some time as he meets up with the Ivory Coast squad on Saturday for the Cup of African Nations. Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou were also unavailable.
As for Wolves, McCarthy gave Emmanuel Frimpong his debut and rested Matt Jarvis, Steven Fletcher and Stephen Hunt. He said he could simply not afford to push them too hard. But with his team a goal down he brought on Jarvis and Fletcher and the two combined well to create Ward's goal. Jarvis played the ball into the area for Fletcher to knock down and the defender finished confidently from close range.
It looked grim for Chelsea. On form it was hard to see them scoring a winner but when it came it was expertly made. Lampard played the ball in to Torres, who spread it out left to Cole. When he crossed, it was Lampard who arrived on time to force it into the goal.
Even Villas-Boas would struggle to argue that the transition under his stewardship is developing painlessly. It feels like there will be many more awkward afternoons like this one until he finally has the team working the way he wants, with the individuals in whom he believes. In an ideal world he would also wean them of their reliance on Lampard's goals but this was not an afternoon to be picky.
It turned out to be Lampard's day, no doubt about that, and if it was the case that he was reluctant to celebrate with his manager at the end then so be it. Villas-Boas is trying to shake it up at Chelsea and even after that goal, Lampard knows there is no guarantee he will be in the team to play Portsmouth in the FA Cup on Sunday.
Substitutes: Wolverhampton Wanderers Jarvis 7 (Forde, h-t), Fletcher 6 (Frimpong, 61), Foley (Edwards, 76). Chelsea McEachran (Mata, 87).
Booked: Wolves Hammill, Henry, Doyle. Chelsea Lampard, Romeu.
Man of the match Ramires.
Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Wolves 39% Chelsea 61%.
Attempts on target: Wolves 5 Chelsea 10.
Referee P Walton (Northamptonshire). Att 27,289.