West Bromwich Albion endured a reality-check at Stamford Bridge last night, losing to Chelsea in the Premiership and contributing to their own downfall with defensive errors that were as frustrating as the London rain.
Goals by Frank Lampard (2), Joe Cole and Didier Drogba gave Chelsea a third successive victory and consigned Albion to a first defeat of the season. How different it might have been had the Albion defenders performed with as much calm as the midfield players, for this would have been a closer and more more appealing contest.
Albion's passing was intricate and attractive in the first half and, while it did not create any significant chances, it offered hope against a team that Bryan Robson, the Albion manager, calls "the best in Europe".
The problem was that Chelsea could afford to be short of their best; Albion effectively handed victory to the Premiership champions. Lampard's goal came after a dreadful pass by Thomas Gaardsoe, while Cole's goal came after Paul Robinson conceded possession to Shaun Wright-Phillips. After that it was a procession.
You could see the frustration etched across Bryan Robson's features. The Albion manager had hoped to come away from Stamford Bridge with something tangible rather than a lesson in composed defending.
Still, it would be wrong to be too harsh. This is easily the best Albion team in a generation and there is more chance of a top-half finish this season than another fight to avoid relegation. Riccardo Scimeca was particularly impressive in midfield for Albion.
Squad rotation was the order of the evening. Robson made changes to the Albion starting line-up, with Miomansy Kamara making his debut. Junichi Inamoto would later emerge as a substitute and there was an Albion debut for Nathan Ellington.
It was a still surprise, however, that Geoff Horsfield, whose two goals ensured a victory against Portsmouth last weekend, was not even on the substitutes' bench.
The Albion manager was clearly thinking ahead to the match at home to Birmingham City on Saturday, and his 4-5-1 formation here was designed to deny the Chelsea midfield space.
The defending notwithstanding, the tactic nearly worked. Albion seemed so assured in midfield that Chelsea did not create a chance until the 21st minute. On that occasion, Didier Drogba headed wide at the far post after a fine cross by Asier Del Horno.
But it was merely the prelude to a Chelsea goal, two minutes later, that owed as much to bad defending as good finishing.
There was no danger when Gaardsoe, the Albion defender, played the ball square to Neil Clement on the edge of his own penalty area. But Gaardsoe's pass was poor, Clement lost control, and Drogba found space on the right flank. His low cross was dummied by Michael Essien, allowing Lampard to score from close range.
Albion enjoyed much possession in midfield, with Richard Chaplow and Kamara noticeably lively, but it all seemed to be part of Chelsea's plan. Albion struggled to create chances and, whenever one of their moves broke down, Chelsea were quick on the break, with Shaun Wright-Phillips particularly troublesome on the right flank.
But again it was poor defending from Albion that allowed Chelsea to increase the lead. Paul Robinson, usually so effective for Albion at left back, gave Wright-Phillips too much space on the byline and the Chelsea winger crossed from the right for Cole to place the ball home from ten yards out.
Chelsea stepped up the pace in the second half and were never likely to let Albion into the match. The home team might have scored in the 55th minute when a shot by Cole skidded across the face of the goal, evading Drogba at the far post.
Chelsea came even closer in the 61st minute but were twice denied in the space of six seconds by Chris Kirkland.
The goalkeeper on loan from Liverpool dived to his left to save a headed effort by Drogba and, after Wright-Phillips turned the loose ball back into the penalty area, Kirkland was on hand to block a shot by Essien.
Clement was equally impressive soon after when his perfectly timed tackle denied Drogba when the Chelsea striker was clear on goal and seemingly set to score.
But Drogba did score in the 67th minute, turning the ball home from close range after a goalmouth scramble.
Lampard scored the fourth in the 81st minute with a volley from the edge of the sixyard box when again Albion struggled to clear their lines.
These were goals that summed up Albion's nervousness and Chelsea's mastery. ..SUPL: