Carlo Ancelotti had admitted in the build-up to this match that Chelsea were a club in crisis and in that context it felt appropriate that they should blow an injury-time opportunity to seize all three points, with a penalty, and return to the top of the Premier League table. The incident was the climax to a thrillingly open match which advertised plenty of what is good about English football and it saw Didier Drogba step up after the referee, Mike Dean, had ruled that Heurelho Gomes had fouled Ramires inside the six-yard box.

There was little debate about the award; even Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham Hotspur manager, had no complaints. But there was, briefly, some intrigue over the identity of the taker. Redknapp closed his eyes and pictured Frank Lampard, his nephew, whose comeback from groin surgery had only started 13 minutes earlier as a substitute, putting his hand up, scoring and claiming the family bragging rights.

Lampard, though, was too raw for the moment. Drogba took responsibility. "I could see him scoring, too," Redknapp said, with a smile, but the final twist of an enthralling afternoon was for Gomes to guess correctly and save.

Chelsea's disappointment did not cut too deeply. They had pitched up at White Hart Lane on their worst run of Premier League form in more than a decade and the last thing that they needed was to concede a soft goal to Roman Pavlyuchenko to leave themselves with another mountain to climb.

But their response in the second half delighted Ancelotti, who had introduced Drogba at the beginning of it in a re-tweaked 4-4-2 formation. They earned the slice of fortune that came their way in the 70th minute when Drogba barrelled past Michael Dawson after taking a high ball; Redknapp complained that he had done so with his hand. Drogba's shot packed a punch but it was straight at Gomes. To the goalkeeper's horror, he allowed it to slip through his fingers and into the net.

Gomes would complete a quick-fire transformation from villain to hero with his penalty save but for Ancelotti, despite further dropped points and the fact that his defending champions now sit fourth in the table, there was satisfaction. The penalty miss did not matter, he suggested. His team was back, and just in time for their forthcoming fixtures against Manchester United and Arsenal.

This stadium has not been kind to Chelsea in recent years. Indeed, it has not been kind to many visiting teams of late, as Tottenham have turned it into something of a fortress. The visitors might have feared the worst when they undermined a positive start with their early concession.

Jermain Defoe was allowed to check inside from the left flank by Branislav Ivanovic. He sauntered along and then zipped a low pass in to Pavlyuchenko. Ivanovic's sloppiness was mirrored by his team-mates inside the area. John Terry was yards away from Pavlyuchenko and John Mikel Obi could not make a challenge. The Russian's finish was low and lethal.

The match thundered along, with some of the tackling shuddering bones. Michael Essien seemed to stamp on Gareth Bale, while Terry and Alan Hutton enjoyed putting down their markers.

Chelsea would have been level at the interval had Salomon Kalou converted one of three headed opportunities that were created for him. The first, on 25 minutes, was arguably the best and Gomes was required to save. Nicolas Anelka also had the ball in the net only to be pulled back, correctly, for offside.

Tottenham's defence is not known for its robustness; they have not managed a clean sheet in the league since the opening day, against Manchester City, and Chelsea's second-half barrage was the acid test for them. Redknapp had lost William Gallas, a former Chelsea centre-half, to a hamstring tear in training on Friday – the manager's prognosis sounded gloomy, as it did with Wilson Palacios, who hurt his ankle late on after a challenge from Ashley Cole. But the return of Dawson was a tonic.

The central defender had not played since he tore ligaments while playing for England at Wembley against Bulgaria on 3 September and his seamless adaptation to the pace of the game was remarkable. Sébastien Bassong also emerged with honours, together with the full-backs, Hutton and Benoît Assou-Ekotto. Dawson heard his name chanted by the home crowd.

Tottenham went close with shots from Defoe and Luka Modric immediately after the interval while Pavlyuchenko flickered but it was Chelsea who were on the front foot. Gradually, the pressure built on the Tottenham defence. Drogba forced Gomes into a smart save and the goalkeeper had to be alert to tip over a misdirected header from Palacios. The drama, however, had only just begun.