Chelsea 4 Reading 2: When Chelsea's team was read out last night, the announcer prefaced the name of each player who had involved last season with the phrase "European champion", a small indulgence that you can forgive a club just three months after their finest hour. In the modern era, football moves on swiftly from even the most significant triumphs.
In Chelsea's case it took about half an hour, by which time they were losing 2-1 at home to a Reading side promoted from the Championship last season and the first wave of mild panic was passing around Stamford Bridge. Last season the crowd watched them chuck away points at home to Aston Villa and Newcastle United and initially this game had the hallmarks of another cock-up.
They won the game in the end largely thanks to a goal, their third, scored by Fernando Torres when the striker was clearly offside. By the time Branislav Ivanovic scored the fourth in the third minute of injury time, Reading were stretched to breaking point and their goalkeeper, Adam Federici, was sprinting unsuccessfully back to his own goal having come up for a last-ditch corner.
The nature of the third goal was hard on Reading who were excellent in the first half but were forced into an inevitable retreat in the second half under a barrage of pressure from Chelsea who finished the game with an overwhelming 72 per cent of the possession. Their best player was the Belgian Eden Hazard whose three assists last night, including winning a penalty, take him to five for the season.
He was the man who eventually brought Chelsea's pressure to bear on Reading although it was Andy Halliday, the linesman culpable on the Torres goal, who helped the home side through the door. Given the extraordinary pace that the modern game is played at, there are certain marginal decisions that can be forgiven. Torres, however, was comfortably offside.
Chelsea dominated the second half having fallen behind to goals before the break from Pavel Pogrebnyak and Danny Guthrie after Frank Lampard has scored from the penalty spot. The home team edged it in the second half but whether they would have won without the help of the officials is one of the great imponderables.
When they were really forcing the issue, Roberto Di Matteo had a four behind Torres comprising of Juan Mata, Hazard and the substitutes Oscar and Daniel Sturridge who played some exhilarating stuff. It was a different Chelsea to the one of recent years, especially with Lampard back holding the fort while the young bucks pushed on for the winning goals.
In defence, however, it was a different story. There was a clanger from Petr Cech for Reading's second goal and Pogrebnyak gave both Gary Cahill and John Terry big problems. Impressive as they were going forward, Chelsea were suspect in defence and this was without David Luiz who announced his absence through injury on Twitter yesterday morning.
Indeed, Reading should have gone in two goals clear but Alex Pearce failed to get a head to Ian Harte's excellent free-kick one minute before the break. They had first gone behind to Lampard's penalty after Hazard had bamboozled Chris Gunter into tripping him on the right side of the Reading area.
Within seven minutes, Reading equalised through the formidable Pogrebnyak. Running into the box to meet Gareth McCleary's cross from the right he directed his header across Cech and into the far corner. Tracking the striker's run, Cahill barely got a peak of the ball from behind Pogrebnyak's considerable shoulders.
It changed Reading's attitude to can-do and soon after Jobi McAnuff drew John Terry into the kind of foul on the edge of the area the Chelsea captain rarely gives away. The free-kick, struck by Guthrie, should not have caused Cech any problems but he made a complete hash of it and dropped the ball in his own goal.
Chelsea had created chances at the start of the game, Ramires and Torres in particular, but by the end of the first half they were struggling. Torres had a decent opportunity from Hazard's cross from the right but directed his header wide of the left post. With strong performances from the likes of Pearce, Guthrie and McAnuff, Reading looked stable.
When Oscar came on for Ramires with 20 minutes left, Chelsea became more dangerous. Hazard opened up Reading in a passage of play that ended in a cross from Torres and a chance for the Belgium international that was blocked by Kaspers Gorkss. Reading found it harder to keep them out
When Sturridge came on for John Obi Mikel on 67 minutes Chelsea were back in the game. With the England international on the right, they equalised in the 69th minute – a goal gifted to them by a mistake from Federici as bad as the one that Cech had made in the first half.
Fed the ball by Hazard, Cahill's low drive was struck honestly but it did not have any degree of menace about it. Inexplicably, the Reading goalkeeper threw himself over the top of the ball and gave the home team an easy way back into the game.
The tide had turned. Chelsea's third goal, scored by Torres, was beautifully crafted. Mata worked the ball forward with help from Lampard and Hazard before it was switched out left to Ashley Cole. His cross was simple for Torres to tuck away, not least because the striker was well-advanced in an offside position when the ball was played.
Until Ivanovic's goal, for which Hazard carried the ball over half the pitch when Chelsea broke from a Reading corner, the away side were still in the game. It was the Torres goal that had tipped it. That and a Chelsea attack that carries some promise for the new season.
Man of the match Hazard.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee L Mason (Lancs).