Ashley Cole spared the blushes of Chelsea's £130million attack as the European champions spluttered to a 1-0 victory against Stoke to go three points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League.

Roman Abramovich looked on as the Blues unleashed the £80million trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata for the first time behind £50million man Fernando Torres.

But the quartet misfired until the 85th minute, when Cole finished a brilliant move to snatch a barely-deserved win.

Torres did nod a Mata corner over the top, but otherwise the Champions League winners were guilty of taking too many touches, making one pass too many and allowing Stoke to smother.

The visitors should have made them pay in the 20th minute when an unmarked Jonathan Walters thumped a header from Glenn Whelan's free-kick against the crossbar.

Branislav Ivanovic was lucky to avoid a yellow card for a shameful dive in the box, but no referee could have failed to book Charlie Adam for rugby-tackling Ramires.

Torres is rarely upstaged when it comes to embarrassing moments and he duly added another to his collection with an air-shot after Mata's wonderful dink put him one-on-one with Asmir Begovic.

At the other end, Michael Kightly almost redirected Geoff Cameron's fizzing cross past Petr Cech, while Chelsea's half was summed up when David Luiz smashed a wild shot high into the Shed End.

Oscar's harsh booking for going down under a challenge from Ryan Shawcross sparked Chelsea to life, and the Brazilian became more and more of a threat with a deflected low shot which was well saved by Begovic before he sent another mid-range shot narrowly wide.

John Obi Mikel departed for Frank Lampard for the final nine minutes and, four minutes later, Chelsea finally had the breakthrough as Mata's delightful backheel found Cole, who lifted the ball beyond Begovic.