Torres pushes West Ham to brink
The gathering storm clouds were black and ominous, although the lights just about stayed on. It was as if West Ham United's current state was being reflected in the prevailing conditions at Stamford Bridge.
The lightning that flashed in west London's leaden skies did not strike, but Fernando Torres finally did to end West Ham's push for a point and conclude 732 tortuous minutes without a goal for Chelsea on his 14th appearance since a £50m move from Liverpool in January.
Avram Grant stood soaked and frustrated in the technical area as stifling summer heat was replaced by the cracking of thunder and a downpour of epic proportions that fused a few floodlights, leaving West Ham's manager bemoaning the weather, the fates and a man called Fernando.
Some of Grant's gripes were justified after a West Ham display that contained much to satisfy, but others were rendered hollow by a glance at the Premier League table. The team that is bottom with four games to go cannot blame ill-fortune alone.
For Chelsea, slim hopes of catching leaders Manchester United and retaining their title live on after a 3-0 victory that was flattering, but notable for a 14-minute cameo from Torres that was an electrifying flashback to his pomp.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti admits Chelsea are a long shot as they stand six points behind with only four games left, but three emphatic wins in a week at least sustains the ambition a little longer.
Torres handled the wet conditions superbly as he turned to score his first for Chelsea. Photo: Reuters
And finally they saw their British record signing make a decisive contribution to ease nerves as they battled to protect the slender lead Frank Lampard's first-half goal had given them with West Ham pushing hard.
Torres, on as substitute for Didier Drogba, had already hinted at his intent by unselfishly setting up Nicolas Anelka for a shot that was cleared off the line by Danny Gabbidon, when the moment he and Stamford Bridge had been waiting for arrived after 84 minutes.
Chasing Anelka's pass diagonally into the box, it looked like Torres would be thwarted by the weather as the ball held up in water gathered in the penalty area. Showing the instincts of old, he checked his run before turning and, despite Wayne Bridge's close attendance, sweeping a left-foot finish past Robert Green.
Almost as significant was the unity shown by his Chelsea team-mates as they chased him down to a corner of the Matthew Harding stand to shower him with celebrations and share his very obvious elation.
It also allowed the brave band of Chelsea fans sporting "I was there when Torres scored" t-shirts through pelting rain to have that extra spring in their step as they strolled around Stamford Bridge after the final whistle.
Torres certainly had a better day than another Chelsea striker of great standing, namely the legendary Bobby Tambling, who was ushered on for a half-time lap of honour as something akin to the apocalypse descended on Stamford Bridge.
Poor Tambling's 202 goals for the club, including two in a 5-5 draw with the Hammers in 1966, counted for nothing as the old boy's umbrella was swept unceremoniously away in the howling storms and he was uncharitably forced to lap the ground to a thorough drenching when surely a simple wave to his adoring public and an immediate dash for cover would have sufficed.
Torres, in contrast, knew it was his lucky day when an injury-time pass intended for Anelka was misread by the striker and fell perfectly for Florent Malouda to apply a spectacular thump into the top corner.
While Torres' early performances were not bad enough to have him written off as comprehensively as he was in some quarters, this brief return to former glories is insufficient to announce normal service has resumed. It was, though, a sign that a sublime talent remains despite recent struggles.
Ancelotti was impressed enough to state publicly that he will spend the next week working on the training ground to forge a serious partnership between Drogba and Torres, something which he has singularly failed to do thus far. If successful, he will pair them against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge next Saturday.
He said: "It was an important moment for Fernando, the team and all the fans who have waited for him to score. It was great. It will help him but was also a relief obviously. Now his future will be fantastic here at this club.
"He was unlucky when the ball got stuck in the water but it was fantastic movement by him to stop, turn and then score."
It was also an important moment for Grant and West Ham because it ensured they paid the price for profligacy in front of goal and much good work elsewhere counted for nothing.
Robbie Keane was the chief culprit with 17 minutes left after a miss that was West Ham's biggest, and ultimately last, chance to claim a point. He is a player past his peak, but the Keane of not so long ago would have been more accomplished than to sweep Jonathan Spector's perfect pass wide of Petr Cech and the post with only the keeper to beat.
As Chelsea chase what looks like a distant dream, West Ham's priorities point in a different direction and Grant cut the image of a manager clutching at straws after the game.
The missed chances and absences of Footballer of the Year Scott Parker and defender Matthew Upson allowed him to clutch with some conviction but hard luck stories alone do not end up with a team propping up the Premier League.
Grant's worry is that poor performances have been punished with defeat and now a decent one has as well. And his assertion that "we deserve to play in this league" is no grounds for safety, falling only one step short of the ill-judged "too good to go down" argument that has proved riddled with holes in the past. West Ham are in a four-game fight for their lives.
West Ham's supporters, steadfastly loyal and unfailingly vociferous, deserve to be in the Premier League but Grant and his team are another matter entirely. They must prove they deserve to retain such status in the remaining games.
It can be achieved if they put a finish on the approach work that troubled Chelsea here - but it is going to be a mighty close run thing.
Fernando Torres walked off in the rain feeling his Premier League career with Chelsea was finally under way. West Ham United have just four games to ensure they make his acquaintance again next season.