Forceful … Chelsea's Frank Lampard. Photo: Reuters
CHELSEA are discovering that life on the road can be every bit as invigorating as Jack Kerouac suggested. Away from suffocating tensions on the home front at Stamford Bridge, where supporters have hardly helped inspire the team with recent mutinous chants, Rafael Benitez's players extended their prolific away form to nine goals in two games while inflicting on Stoke City the club's heaviest home defeat in the Premier League.
True, they were aided by a performance of nightmarish misfortune by Stoke's Jonathan Walters, who scored two own goals before fluffing his opportunity of a reprieve as he missed a late penalty. Benitez smiled at being asked when he had last seen such a remarkably gaffe-prone individual display.
''We had one of our own last week,'' he said, recalling Branislav Ivanovic's two wretched defensive lapses against Swansea, the memories of which were emphatically expunged by this decisive victory.
Fans voice their feelings on Rafa Benitez. Photo: AP
Such is the febrile atmosphere around Chelsea this season that their every result is scrutinised for some portent of Benitez's future.
''We can't every week be thinking, 'Crisis, not a crisis','' argued the interim manager.
Chelsea stand third in the Premier League, not that you would have known it from the fans' now-familiar song repertoire of ''We don't care about Rafa'' and ''There's only one Di Matteo''.
Benitez was evasive when pressed on whether his side felt more relaxed away from south-west London, but there was no mistaking his satisfaction at a win that rekindled the club's faint vestiges of hope for the title.
In a veiled broadside at his predecessor, Roberto Di Matteo, he was not shy of advertising Chelsea's resurgence under his watch: ''We are conceding fewer goals than in the past. We are also scoring more, which means we have more balance.''
He had primed his men for the particularly physical test at the Britannia Stadium, but he could not have foreseen the gifts that arrived courtesy of the hapless Walters.
His afternoon had begun inauspiciously, when Walters set himself for an extravagant volley and proceeded to boot the ball straight into his own face, and from there his afternoon took ever more darkly comic turns. He headed Cesar Azpilicueta's cross into his own net on the stroke of half-time and then, remarkably, he contrived to repeat the trick early in the second half when he nodded in Juan Mata's corner. Walters was handed the opportunity to redeem himself by taking a penalty with his team already 4-0 down, and promptly skied his attempt over the bar.
There appeared no hole in the Britannia pitch large enough to swallow him, even if Tony Pulis offered a few consoling words. ''Jon's all right,'' the Stoke manager assured. ''We look after people at this club.''
Positive messages abounded for Benitez's team, not least the Frank Lampard penalty that took the midfielder clear of Kerry Dixon as the club's second-highest all-time leading scorer, with 194 goals.
Nine more and Lampard can usurp Bobby Tambling at the top of the list, even if this looks unlikely to dissuade Roman Abramovich from his plan to offload the 34 year-old in the summer. There was also a return from injury for John Terry, who came through the final 10 minutes of the match unscathed, despite handing Stoke their penalty for his late foul on Walters.
Pulis was involved in a lively exchange of words with referee Andre Marriner, claiming that Chelsea did not deserve their penalty when Mata went to ground in a tangle with Robert Huth. ''I was just a bit disappointed with a couple of things that went on, let's leave it at that,'' he said.
Seldom was he more dismayed than upon seeing Walters undo all Stoke's first-half resistance. The striker had been under pressure from Mata as he sought to defend a ball whipped in by Azpilicueta, but succeeded only in redirecting it past goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.
Any ambition Stoke had of a comeback was soon snuffed out by poor Walters, who intercepted Mata's corner with another fine header, unfortunately in the wrong direction. ''It killed us off,'' admitted Pulis, who watched helplessly as Lampard lashed home his penalty, before Eden Hazard produced a moment of inspiration from 25 metres.