It has been said that José Mourinho's return to Chelsea has given the club fresh box-office appeal, and after this contest it would be hard to argue with that assertion. In 90 engrossing minutes came comedy, controversy, drama, breathtaking moments and an eye-catching turn from the star protagonist himself. This was a show, all right.
Where to start? Well, perhaps near the end and the moment on 69 minutes when Mourinho was sent to the stands by the referee, Anthony Taylor, for dissent. Chelsea were 2-1 up, having recovered from the shock of going behind to Jordon Mutch's avoidable opener after 10 minutes and, Mourinho being Mourinho, now was the time to make a meal of the dismissal. Instead of heading to the directors' box or dressing room, the manager took a seat eight rows above the dug-out among home supporters. Soon after came a chorus of "José Mourinho, he sits where he wants" from Chelsea fans and two more goals, a stunning edge-of-the area drive from Oscar and a second from the outstanding Eden Hazard on 82 minutes, to seal the win for the hosts. With that, Mourinho did depart down the tunnel, his joy tempered somewhat by the prospect of a touchline ban for Manchester City's visit here next Sunday.
Mourinho did not attend the post-match press conference, instead sending his assistant coach Steve Holland, who explained that the Portuguese's burst of anger was caused by his feeling that Taylor was not dealing with time-wasting by Cardiff's players while coming down strongly on those in blue for supposedly doing the same thing.
"José's very frustrated and that stems from the time-wasting of the opposition," said Holland. "We mentioned it on several occasions to the fourth official but he didn't do anything about it. And then when Ivanovic had the ball in his hands for no more than two seconds the referee started pointing to his watch. So there is huge frustration and to be sent off for showing that is harsh."
The anger may well have been justified but Mourinho owes the referee a debt of gratitude for allowing Chelsea's equaliser on 33 minutes. The goal, after all, should not have stood.
In the process of launching possession upfield, David Marshall, the Cardiff goalkeeper, bounced the ball, only for Samuel Eto'o to kick it away from the keeper's reach while stood by his right shoulder and into the path of Hazard. A scramble ensued before the Belgian eventually passed the ball into the net. Marshall aside, no one in the visitors' ranks made a great fuss, yet according to Fifa's Laws of the Game – 12.16, a goalkeeper is considered to be in control of the ball even while bouncing it and any attempt by an opposition player to take it away from him should be "punished by a direct free-kick".
"I asked for clarification of the ruling and what the referee and linesman saw," said Malky Mackay, the Cardiff manager. "The explanation leaves me disappointed. They felt that the goalkeeper dropped the ball. My goalkeeper bounced the ball, and they thought he had dropped the ball and said if he had bounced the ball that would have been a foul. So obviously that is a mistake."
Taylor can expect to be punished for the aberration while for the culprit, the moment was one to savour. Eto'o has struggled to impress since arriving from Anzhi Makhachkala in August, with his performances for Chelsea increasing the sense that the 34-year-old is no longer the feared striker of old. Here, though, was undoubtedly his best performance for the club, with his dubious, yet cunning assist followed by a delightful goal on 66 minutes. Collecting Hazard's pass, the veteran quickly moved across the Cardiff area and, having jinked past Steven Caulker, hit a vicious strike past Marshall his first goal for Chelsea and, incredibly, the first by one of their strikers in the league this season.
"It's always difficult when you change clubs and country," said Holland. "Samuel has scored goals at the top level throughout Europe but I'm sure he will still feel happy at having that first one [for Chelsea]. It's something the staff and players have seen on many days in training. Physically you can change but quality is permanent and hopefully we'll see more finishing like that from Samuel in the future."
Despite the preceding controversy, Chelsea deserved their lead, having shown persistence and drive after falling behind in somewhat slapstick circumstances. David Luiz was at fault, misjudging the pace of Ramires's back-pass and, having turned his back on the ball, was left to look on in horror as Mutch ran through on the blindside and struck the ball past Petr Cech, making his 300th league appearance for Chelsea.
Cardiff had chances to increase their lead, most notably through Peter Odemwingie's 21st-minute header, and they soon paid the price, albeit incorrectly, bringing to an end a difficult fortnight for the Welsh club following the sacking of the head of recruitment, Iain Moody, by the owner, Vincent Tan. For Chelsea, now up to second place, comes a Champions League tie with Schalke and, no doubt, more drama.