Chelsea’s hopes of going four points clear at the top of the Premier League were dashed Tuesday night at the Hawthorns by West Brom substitute Victor Anichebe, whose late equalizer cancelled out Branislav Ivanovic’s first-half, stoppage time strike.
The visitors had looked good for their lead, which had resulted when Ivanovic swept home a David Luiz flick on a poorly defended Willian corner, but Jose Mourinho will lament his side not having made more of the significant possession they enjoyed, as the Baggies fought back strongly in the final period of the game. Inside the last five minutes, Anichebe denied the Blues victory when he beat Luiz to a Saido Berahino cross and glanced the ball past Petr Cech.
The result means that both Arsenal and Manchester City, who play Wednesday evening, can leapfrog Chelsea should they secure respective victories against Manchester United and Sunderland.
For tonight’s encounter at the Hawthorns, Mourinho made one change to the starting XI that brushed aside Newcastle United at the weekend, with Ramires replacing Frank Lampard in midfield. Cech was in goal, with Ivanovic at right back, Cesar Azpilicueta continuing on the left and Gary Cahill partnered by Luiz in central defence. Nemanja Matic and Ramires were in charge of the Blues' engine room, and the by-now-familiar creative trio of Willian, Eden Hazard and Oscar was tasked with running the Baggies' backline ragged. Fit-again Fernando Torres had to make do with a place on the bench as Samuel Eto’o made his sixth consecutive start up front for Chelsea.
With John Terry still absent through injury and Lampard rested, Cech was handed the captain’s armband on an evening when he was expected to be more of a spectator than an active participant.
As the game got underway amidst a flurry of snowflakes, Chelsea were soon into their rhythm, building patiently from the back with Matic cutting an imposing figure and Ramires looking lively, a response perhaps to his being jeered by Baggies fans every time he touched the ball. "He’s going to cheat in a minute," chanted the home crowd, unforgivingly remembering the Brazilian’s controversial last-gasp theatrics in the corresponding Premier League fixture at the Bridge earlier in the season. Ramires' actions had resulted in Chelsea being awarded a penalty from which Hazard scored to secure an unlikely point for the Blues, who had been trailing 2-1 in a game they scarcely deserved to draw.
With Hazard, Oscar and Willian interchanging and weaving their magic and trickery, it seemed only a matter of time before Chelsea would break the deadlock, but West Brom held firm and might have taken the lead had Chris Brunt done better with an attempt on goal when played in by Thievy Bifouma on a rare Baggies foray into the Blues' half.
As the first period lapsed into stoppage time, Chelsea pressed forward, forcing West Brom to concede two successive corners, the second of which, whipped in by Willian from the right, was flicked on by Luiz into the path of unmarked Ivanovic, who volleyed home from 6 yards out. 1-0 to the Premier League leaders at the break, and surely no way back for their relegation-threatened opponents.
The second half continued much where the first had left off, with Chelsea dominating play. Shortly after the restart, Eto’o could have doubled the Blues' lead, but Ben Foster saved smartly, and the West Brom keeper was soon on hand again to deny Willian.
In the 69th minute, Mourinho opted to freshen up his attacking options, replacing the hard-working Eto’o with Torres, and soon after, Baggies manager Pepe Mel sent on Anichebe for Morgan Amalfitano with Anichebe carrying a clear instruction to his teammates to forsake defence in favour of attack. Thievy and James Morrison both went close to securing an equaliser, and in an unruly moment, Ivanovic was booked by referee Anthony Taylor for a petulant outburst that required Cech's calming intervention. As the clock ticked down, Mel withdrew Thievy in favour of Matej Vydra whilst Mourinho sought to shut up shop by replacing Oscar with John Obi Mikel.
West Brom took the game to Chelsea, unsettling the visitors, and they might have had a penalty when Luiz appeared to attempt to forcibly remove the shirt from Anichebe’s back. The Blues looked unsettled at the back, in particular when Cahill, having sustained an injury, remained in the game when perhaps he might have been substituted. It was Anichebe, though, who had the last laugh when beating Luiz to Berahino’s cross to equalize with barely three minutes left. It would be cruel on the Brazilian to make the suggestion, but the thought was there that had Terry been playing, he might have read the situation better.
In the end, Chelsea failed to maximise the opportunities they created, and Mourinho and his players will be bitterly disappointed that they failed to defend a lead they held until the 87th minute. For their part, West Brom never gave up, and Baggies supporters will feel that the performance and result, which move Mel’s side out of the bottom three, give them a solid platform on which to mount a relegation escape bid. Of the two managers, there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind who left the Hawthorns happiest tonight.