Frank Lampard is widely regarded as the complete midfielder but he was given a run for his money by an unlikely team-matetonight. Stationed unusually deep, the imperious Nicolas Anelka inspired an important Chelsea win courtesy of a stream of sublime passes complemented by the odd incisive tackle and a deft late goal. After a deceptively bright start Sunderland ultimately floundered in the face of Anelka's strength and attacking vision and Carlo Ancelotti's team, initially wobbly in defence, gained a measure of revenge for their 3-0 humiliation against Steve Bruce's players at Stamford Bridge last autumn.
Afterwards attention immediately switched to two new faces absent here but expected to be involved against Liverpool at the weekend. "Do you need Fernando Torres and David Luiz?" Chelsea's manager was asked. Ancelotti laughed before assuring everyone the £75m invested in luring the pair to west London was money well spent.
"Torres is a fantastic player," he said. Next came a hint that Roman Abramovich's release of the purse-strings represented an endorsement of a managerial regime rocked by Ray Wilkins' departure.
"It's important," agreed Chelsea's manager. "We are able to move on now." The road forward may well feature a switch to 4-4-2 with Torres and Didier Drogba up front. "We can play with two strikers," he said. "We have a lot of possibilities now and we can play from the back with more quality."
David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, may not quite have made leader of the opposition but he explored a new avenue last night when he was "unveiled" as Sunderland's nonexecutive vice-chairman. Sitting alongside Ellis Short, the Sunderland owner, and the chairman, Niall Quinn, Miliband did not have long to wait before he could cheer a goal.
Despite operating out of position at left-back, Phil Bardsley has arguably been Bruce's best player of late. He showed off his overlapping credentials by receiving the ball on the halfway line and advancing unimpeded before finally cutting in and sidestepping Mikel John Obi with unexpected ease. All that remained was for Bardsley to direct a dipping right-foot shot beyond Petr Cech from the edge of the area.
Were Miliband still in his old job in the last government he would now have been embroiled in the Egypt crisis but instead he found himself watching Bruce's Egyptian right-winger Ahmed Elmohamady conceding a penalty for seeming to climb on top of Ashley Cole.
Frank Lampard stepped forward to score from the spot, sending Craig Gordon the wrong way and, shortly after that, Ancelotti's men were ahead. Anelka was already impressing at the apex of Chelsea's midfield diamond, revelling in reminding everyone that Jordan Henderson is not a holding midfielder, and his astutely timed pass enabled Solomon Kalou to direct the ball into the back of an unguarded net with the outside of a foot after Gordon had unwisely and unnecessarily dashed way off his line.
"Anelka played very well," agreed Ancelotti who may yet re-invent the striker as a playmaker par excellence.
"I was very happy for him, he's very dangerous in that position, Sunderland found it very difficult to mark him when he went forward."
As he spoke, it was becoming hard to remember that a first half played at breathtaking speed had been pretty even. Bruce's team equalised after Mikel's foul on Elmohamady earned them a free-kick 20 yards out on the right of the area. Kieran Richardson delivered that dead-ball brilliantly, his low left-foot strike curving in at the near post and leaving Cech rooted to the spot.
Yet as the second period unfolded Richardson and company faded. With Bruce's defence dropping worryingly deep Cole, John Terry, Lampard, Michael Essien and José Bosingwa all came into their own with Lampard repeatedly second-guessing Henderson.
Lampard might have scored his second goal had a hallmark late dash into the box not ended with the resultant shot being blocked by Nedum Onuoha but Chelsea were ascendant. During a particularly desperate goalmouth scramble, Steed Malbranque chested clear just as Kalou seemed set to score again from point-blank range.
After clinging on by their fingernails Sunderland lost any resemblance of a grip on the game when the fall-out from a disputed corner saw Gordon parry Lampard's shot and, by way of a deflection, John Terry volley home the rebound.
There was a moment of late tension when Richardon and Branislav Ivanovic touched foreheads and were both booked in the wake of a dispute over the former's challenge on Bosingwa. Anelka, though, could not be overshadowed and his deft close-range finish ensured the evening ended with all eyes still on him.
"Anelka is one of them players who can play anywhere," said Bruce. "If Carlo has Torres and Drogba up front and Anelka behind, wow.
"Chelsea were fantastic. They looked like Chelsea again. Whether or not they can claw back 10 points and challenge for the title is debatable but they're pretty formidable," Bruce added.