Decent results keep Chelsea's old guard in denial.
This laborious win over Norwich City, which had looked unlikely until the visitors conceded a penalty and red card in the 81st minute, followed a similarly unconvincing home victory over West Bromwich Albion last week and a dreary draw with Stoke City in their first game of the campaign.
Seven points from three games equates to a promising start to the season but, while the new signings Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku impressed after being introduced as substitutes here, Chelsea's most battle-worn players again looked over the hill.
Chelsea's creativity deficit is well documented but it is only part of the problem and, anyway, may soon be addressed by the arrival of another schemer in the Mata mould, perhaps Luka Modric. But other ailments afflict Chelsea: the power and pace with which they used to pummel all-comers have dwindled to the point that their vulnerability emboldens opponents.
The centre of defence is a case in point: John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic looked slow, weak and jittery as Grant Holt outmuscled and even outmanoeuvred them at Stamford Bridge, just as Alex had been bullied off the ball by Shane Long for West Bromwich's goal the previous week. Chelsea's core is no longer hard.
January recruit David Luiz could be restored to the defence for the next match if he recovers from injury as planned but, having lost his place in the side after erratic displays towards the end of last season, the Brazilian won't relish trying to find his bearings in such a ramshackle rearguard. André Villas-Boas claimed to be unworried, saying the players merely needed to "improve concentration".
Neither was Frank Lampard too alarmed. "We need to make sure we defend a bit better - every one of us," he said. "But in early games of the season it's happening with all the teams. Manchester City have looked good but they conceded two at Bolton."
Lampard's own place must now be in jeopardy. Once so influential, the 33-year-old has been peripheral to Chelsea's play for many months. When peopled by him and the lethargic Mikel John Obi, Chelsea's central midfield offers no dynamism. Ramires at least has vigour but struggles to weigh consistently on games, especially when, as against Norwich, he is stationed on the right to accommodate Lampard.
In Lukaku Chelsea do at least appear to have an ideal replacement for Didier Drogba, who will be out of action for several weeks after being knocked out following a mid-air collision with the Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy in the 65th minute. The Ivorian was treated on the pitch before being rushed to hospital, where, happily, CT scans did not find any serious damage. He was allowed to return home but will be kept under observation and is not likely to return to action for several weeks at least.
Villas-Boas does not seem to lack ruthlessness – after starting Salomon Kalou for the first two Premier League matches he withdrew the Ivorian in the 35th minute against WBA and did not even award him a place on the bench against Norwich – but he has not given any indication that Lampard could lose his place to, say, Josh McEachran or the 19-year-old summer signing Oriel Romeu. "People talk too much about age," protests Lampard in defence of himself and his fellow veterans. "You can't buy experience. Age is something people throw at you when you have a bad result. It's an easy excuse but the answer will be seen at the end of the season."
Lampard feels the players with whom Villas-Boas currently persists are in the team on merit and says the manager will not be afraid to replace them if they perform badly. "We are introducing youth with the signings we've made and some of the players we have here already and I know for a fact the manager won't be scared to play them in important games," he said.
Like an old hand, Lampard seeks to put a positive spin on criticism. "It's quite nice that not everyone is expecting Chelsea to run away with it like they have done in other years. That leaves it to us to prove people wrong."
Norwich, meanwhile, look well equipped to prove wrong those who had them pegged as relegation certainties. After drawing their first two games of the season they were strong and creative at Stamford Bridge. Holt was superb up front and, after a Chelsea defensive blunder, struck a deserved equaliser after Jose Bosingwa has shot the home side ahead. Paul Lambert's team seemed on course for a point, at least, until the late red card and Lampard's successful late penalty and a stoppage time goal from Mata. Holt, the 30-year-old who came late to professionalism but looks at home in the top flight, is in no mood to fall back again.
"It's a long way from working as a tyre fitter to scoring at Stamford Bridge but to get here it's been a long, hard slog for quite a few lads in our dressing room," said Holt. "Now we've made it this far we want to stay here."
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