Having struggled to find blend and fluency against West Bromwich Albion, they looked like dropping points against Norwich City until a late penalty from Frank Lampard restored some sense of order to their football.
In the end the afternoon ended satisfactorily for André Villas-Boas's side when Juan Mata, newly arrived from Valencia for £23.5m, scored a third goal in the 10th of the 11 minutes of stoppage time which were largely due to the prolonged treatment Didier Drogba needed before he could be taken off on a stretcher following a collision with John Ruddy, the Norwich goalkeeper.
Norwich, retaining the momentum which had seen them leap two divisions to restore Premier League football to Carrow Road, had already stunned Chelsea by drawing level early in the second half after appearing in danger of being swamped at the start of the game.
Saturday was not so much a meeting of haves and have-nots as a conflict of contrasting ambitions. For Chelsea, the season will be a failure if they do not make significant progress in the Champions League, which means winning it as far as Roman Abramovich is concerned. For Norwich, finishing 17th would bring out the bunting.
Shortcomings in defence had ensured the brevity of Norwich's previous visit to the Premier League, and they faced opponents who had gorged themselves on goals in the previous four encounters, scoring 15 times in all competitions.
Fifteen and counting, at least that was the way it seemed when Chelsea scored after only six minutes and looked in the mood for another routine rout against opponents who were allowing them too much space within shooting range. José Bosingwa had already drawn a stretching save from Ruddy, and now the full-back moved on to Lampard's pass to beat the goalkeeper from 30 yards with a shot into the far left-hand corner of the net.
With Bosingwa regularly turning Norwich's defence on the right, and Drogba only just failing to make contact with a shrewd through-ball from Fernando Torres, Norwich appeared to be in for an afternoon of damage limitation.
The visitors, however, have leapt two divisions playing quick, intelligent, intuitive football, and when they started to get men forward in numbers to support Grant Holt, Chelsea's defence looked almost equally ill at ease. Holt had scored 45 goals in Norwich's two promotion seasons, now he began brushing past John Terry as if the Chelsea captain wasn't there. At times he wasn't.
Twice in the first half, timely passes from Wesley Hoolahan found Chelsea's defenders moving up too late for offside. On the first occasion Holt could not reach the cross as it dropped behind him, on the second Chris Martin could only lay the ball back to Kyle Naughton, whose rising shot was pushed over the bar by Henrique Hilário.
The portents were not false. Terry began the second half by meeting a corner with a header which Ruddy managed to push wide, but Norwich now believed they were worth a goal and it was no surprise when they drew level just past the hour, even if the goal owed something to freakish circumstances.
There appeared to be no immediate threat in Naughton's lob from the right, but a breakdown in communication between Hilário and Branislav Ivanovic found goalkeeper and defender both going for it. Following the inevitable collision, Holt hooked the ball in under the bar.
Collision-wise, Chelsea had a bad day. A few minutes later Ruddy left his goalline to punch away a centre and inadvertently laid out Drogba instead. Drogba took an age to come round, and although Chelsea quickly introduced Mata and Romelu Lukaku to their attack, Norwich still looked capable of holding out for a point, or something better.
There was no doubt about the penalty which undid them. Ruddy clearly brought Ramires down and had to go, and Lampard's firmly struck kick eased his team's anxieties.
A man down and required to slog on for an extra 11 minutes, Norwich were going to do well to get something from the match. Perhaps they did not deserve to lose another goal, neatly taken by Mata from a narrow angle after he had intercepted an aberrant pass from Ritchie De Laet.
Paul Lambert, the Norwich manager, felt the penalty had been the turning point and was angry with the Chelsea fitness coach, José Mário Rocha, who he felt had invaded the technical area after the penalty had been awarded. "You don't do that," he said. "It's disrespectful. I don't speak Portuguese but if he understands Glaswegian he'll know what I said."
Villas-Boas said Drogba had "lost consciousness completely" and was grateful to the medical staff for reacting quickly to "a potentially dangerous situation".
"However, there is natural physical contact in any game and things like that can happen," the Chelsea manager added.
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