This was a game that promised changes afoot in Chelsea's makeup. Michael Essien was thrilled to make his long awaited return to the midfield heartland for the first time since May, Gary Cahill, his transfer imminent, watched with an excitable smile from the stands, and Fernando Torres looked like a brand new player – or more pertinently, an old player.
This was much more like the version that terrorised the Premier League in his Liverpool days. Torres did everything but score. The statisticians may be able to rack this one up on top of the goalless games that stretch back almost four months in the league, but it was a top‑class display. His role in the matchwinner merited more than just a plain old assist, too, given that his work amounted for about 99% of the goal.
He lashed at Juan Mata's cross with a swivelling scissors kick, as spectacular in technique as in ferocity, only to see the ball rebound off the crossbar, hit Frank Lampard, and bounce in. While the Englishman lapped up the applause, the crowd knew who to thank for the goal and chanted for Torres.
Over the course of the game half a dozen chances came the way of Chelsea's No 9, and his sharpness of thought and willingness to shoot made him a constant threat. "He's getting a good run of games and finding inspiration and motivation. He hasn't been scoring but he is getting nearer all the time," said André Villas-Boas, the Chelsea manager.
But for all the possibilities of future improvements, Chelsea walked off mindful that a narrow victory over Sunderland had caused more than enough nervy moments. The fearless form recently instilled in the visitors by Martin O'Neill only missed finesse in the finishing department. "We missed at least five really good opportunities," said Sunderland's frustrated manager.
The first would have given them an early lead, in the fourth minute, when Stéphane Sessègnon ambled into the box with a fine mazy run, and James McClean could not quite make a clean connection with the goal at his mercy. The winger, 22, had another chance late in the game but sliced horribly.
Perhaps the occasion got to McClean. He was being watched by the Republic of Ireland manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, with a view to being integrated into the squad in time for the European Championship.
With Sunderland hunting an equaliser and Chelsea seeking some breathing space, the game could have tilted in any direction in a frantic period when Phil Dowd was confronted with three penalty appeals around the hour mark.
Torres was brought down by John O'Shea on the margins of the penalty area, then Ashley Cole crashed into Nicklas Bendtner's back and finally Torres attempted to jink between two Sunderland defenders and got caught by Phil Bardsley's knee. Dowd's only action was to book the Chelsea striker for the final plea – a poor decision.
Sunderland played with enough courage to ensure Chelsea were anxious about the outcome until the final whistle. The visitors mustered three late efforts that suggested they would not have been unlucky with a point.
"A blundering full-back from four divisions below could have stuck a couple of those in," said O'Neill. "When you consider Chelsea were overwhelmed at the end, we should try to press on. It just gnaws away we didn't get something from the game."
Funny, really. The difference in the end was finishing and yet the finish that made the difference was merely down to Lampard's knack for being in the right place at the right time.
That drew him level with Jimmy Greaves's 124 strikes in Chelsea's league goalscoring charts. Lampard has 181 in all competitions, 12 behind Kerry Dixon, with the all-time leading scorer, Bobby Tambling, on 202. "He will continue to threaten all remaining Chelsea records," Villas-Boas said, before confirming that Cahill had passed his medical at the club. "He should be our player soon," he added.
There was no disguising the manager's pleasure at the result. "It was an important weekend for us. We have shortened the distance to Tottenham, and increased the distance from Liverpool," he said.