Chelsea perch on top of the fledgling Premier League table, restored to the summit for the first time in almost 21 months, yet that is where the prescribed script from this frantic occasion has to be ditched. Where the locals might have anticipated a saunter, instead the emotion that gripped this stadium on the final whistle was one of relief. It felt like an achievement to deflate and defeat Reading, newly arrived from the Championship.
It even took a dubious goal to break the visitors near the end, Fernando Torres stabbing Ashley Cole's centre into an empty net despite standing clear of the last defender, Kaspars Gorkss. The linesman was unmoved as visiting players legitimately appealed for offside, the home side's fourth goal duly scored deep into stoppage time by Branislav Ivanovic from Eden Hazard's break with the visiting goalkeeper, Adam Federici, still in no man's land up-field after going up for a corner. Anton Zingarevich, Reading's owner, cursed such ill fortune. Not all Russian billionaires thrive in these parts.
The mood had been one of celebration on the Fulham Road prior to kick-off, the players reintroduced to the home support as "European champions" with this a homecoming 95 days after Chelsea's giddy night in Munich. Yet while Chelsea rightly still bask in their success back in May, this contest offered a harsh reminder that their new-look team is very much a work in progress.
The opening period had summed up the awkward blend with which Roberto Di Matteo is still grappling. For 25 minutes the hosts had appeared untouchable, an irresistible attacking blur of movement hogging the ball and threatening every time they ventured into enemy territory. Then, for the remainder of the period, they shrunk into sloppiness, rendered prone and vulnerable at the back by newly promoted opponents who scented blood.
Had Alex Pearce stretched to touch Ian Harte's delivery as half-time approached, Reading might have retired with a two-goal advantage they would have merited, so dominant had they proved once Pavel Pogrebnyak had darted across Gary Cahill to guide Garath McCleary's fizzed centre across Petr Cech. The Russian was offering the same muscular threat he had mustered with Fulham earlier this year, a rapid supply-line from wide provided by McCleary and the slippery Jobi McAnuff.
Chelsea, a team with only one clean sheet in 15 games including pre-season friendlies, – a sequence stretching back to the trip to Arsenal in April – heaved but failed to contain them. This back-line has tended to creak of late.
Even normally reliable performers such as Cech – so outstanding at the Allianz Arena – and John Terry have been unnerved by the sudden frailty. The goalkeeper should have gathered Danny Guthrie's free-kick after his captain had thwarted McAnuff's run illegally, only to misjudge the flight of the ball. As he flopped to his left, the shot cannoned from his body and into the corner of the net with those in the Matthew Harding stand behind him hushed in disbelief.
Reading had not beaten Chelsea in the league since a Second Division game in 1930. What made their advantage all the more startling was that they might have felt scorched by the home side's opening. The lead was as much a triumph of resilience as any threat on the break.
For a while it had felt as if the visitors would be swept away amid Chelsea's glorious rat-a-tat exchanges, the initial flurries the kind to leave Roman Abramovich drooling with satisfaction from the sidelines. Hazard and Juan Mata had pinged passes among themselves, fluorescent-shirted Reading players dizzied by the movement and diving in on thin air as they attempted to intercept. The Belgian's touch and burst of pace have made him an immediate crowd-pleaser, his trickery teasing the foul from Chris Gunter to earn an early penalty dispatched emphatically by Frank Lampard. Hazard warnings will be issued throughout the Premier League with this the second spot kick he has won in successive games.
The home players had tapped into that tempo, Torres nutmegging Jem Karacan and gliding from Gorkss only for Pearce to choke the shot in front of goal. Yet, by the interval, the old anxieties were threatening to creep back in, with the game of catch-up so unexpected. Torres should have guided a header from Hazard's centre on target having squeezed between opposing centre-halves.
Chelsea had ran aground on Reading resistance when the introduction of Oscar for his compatriot Ramires thrust together this team's most creative trio of talents for the first time. Daniel Sturridge soon followed, so there was an irony that it was Gary Cahill, allowed time and space midway through the second half, who was to swerve an equaliser from distance through Federici's weak attempt to save to haul them level. It would take Torres' late good fortune to edge them to victory.