Thursday, April 14, 2011
Blues back in with a shout
Mark Lomas, Stamford Bridge
An enthralling North London derby ten miles up the road may deservedly hog the headlines in Thursday's newspapers, but at Stamford Bridge, reigning Premier League champions Chelsea moved back into the spotlight and back into the title race with an accomplished display against Birmingham. It was a performance oozing the sort of ruthless efficiency that characterised the Blues' 2009-10 season but that has been lacking all too often this term.
• Wednesday's gallery
John Terry proclaimed in his programme notes that Chelsea "have the quality to push this title race right to the end" and results over the past two nights appear to corroborate the captain's assessment, ensuring their visit to Manchester United on May 8 holds more significance than merely determining whether the Premier League trophy's destination is Old Trafford or Emirates Stadium.
Blues fans' had persisted with using "champions, champions" as a battle cry in recent fixtures, though it appeared their refusal to accept a trophyless fate was akin to a boozed-up reveller in a karaoke bar refusing to end his rendition of 'My Way' at closing time. But with the Blues now up to second place in the table, ahead of Arsenal on goal difference, the optimism and defiance of both Chelsea's skipper and their supporters seems vindicated.
Six wins in seven league games is certainly the form of champions and the unwillingness of their rivals to move out of sight has enabled Chelsea to step up from their role as title understudies - eagerly keeping their fingers crossed in the hope that one of the leading lights might just fall ill - to central protagonists on the Premier League's stage once more.
Of course, the six-point advantage still held by United leaves the Blues with an uphill battle, and an improbable triumph would require Sir Alex Ferguson's side to lose to both Chelsea at home and Arsenal away. Charming as ever in the post-match conference, Carlo Ancelotti rejected the media's attempts to lure him into a Terry-esque declaration that "we will win the title", preferring to take a realistic view of the battle at the top.
"Our aim is to try to win every game and after that we can see what our position in the table is," Ancelotti said. "To close the gap of six points will not be easy, our aim is to stay focused on the next five games. I don't know [if we can win]. Last season we won with 86, this season 80 will do. Manchester United only need ten points.
"We know Manchester United have to play against Arsenal so everything is open. I would like to be in Manchester United's position now though, six points is a lot at this stage of the season. [But] I have learned that anything can happen in football. You can win the title in the last minute, you can lose the title at the last minute."
That Chelsea's name has returned to discussions of the title race must delight the Italian. Back in November, his team were humbled 1-0 at St Andrew's in what was a fourth successive league defeat, in the middle of an eight-match winless streak. Chelsea should have won that game comfortably but found Ben Foster in sensational form, with Didier Drogba thwarted by the England goalkeeper time and again on a frustrating afternoon.
Drogba may have failed to beat Foster again at the Bridge, but there was to be no repeat disappointment for his side. Within three minutes they had the lead, as Paulo Ferreira's right-wing cross was flicked on by the Ivorian - preferred up front to Fernando Torres for a fifth successive Premier League game - towards a primed Florent Malouda, who diverted the ball into the back of the net with aplomb.
Ferreira, who it was announced prior to kick-off was making his 200th appearance in a Chelsea shirt, comes across as Stamford Bridge's version of that embarrassing uncle who is only wheeled out for the occasional family function; a character who has a tendency to either come out with a gag that will bring the house down, or fall asleep head down in a pile of vol-au-vents. Fortunately for Blues supporters, Uncle Paulo was on form and not error-prone on Wednesday.
"Shocking. We gave ourselves a mountain to climb," was Alex McLeish's assessment of the early goal. "It was much the same as when we came here last season." On that occasion, Malouda scored the opening goal and Chelsea went onto dominate, winning 3-0. This time, their supremacy produced a 3-1 scoreline. Malouda and Drogba, back to his pre-malaria best, ran the show for the Blues, with Frank Lampard continuing to go from strength to strength as the season reaches his climax.
Kalou may be regarded by most as Ancelotti's fourth-choice striker, but his tremendous solo run and curling finish added a second, rubbing salt in the ever-gaping wounds of substitute Torres, whose goal drought was extended to 898 minutes after another fruitless cameo from the bench. When Malouda added a headed third in the second half, there was no way back for Birmingham and a Seb Larsson penalty, after David Luiz felled James Derbyshire, was merely a consolation.
As the Premier League action unfolded at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea's youngsters were being put to the sword by Manchester United's starlets in the FA Youth Cup semi-final. A 4-0 thrashing helped overturn a 3-2 first leg deficit as United deprived Chelsea of another piece of silverware at Old Trafford. But thanks to Wednesday night's result, Ancelotti's side have put themselves back in with a shout of giving their rivals a taste of their own medicine when they visit M16 in May.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Didier Drogba. There were a number of assured displays from the boys in Blue but, despite Malouda bagging twice, it was Drogba who was again Chelsea's chief threat. The burly striker is hitting form at just the right time, with his boss praising his contribution after the game. "Didier has a strong personality - he knew that with malaria he didn't do his best. Now, he is fit and showing his fantastic quality. He is in fantastic form," Ancelotti said.
CHELSEA VERDICT: A nerveless display, they played with freedom and verve through the midfield and though there were a couple of shaky defensive moments from Birmingham breaks, the result never looked in doubt. Whether they have what it takes to be champions remains to be seen, but their hopes are well and truly alive.
BIRMINGHAM VERDICT: After bouncing back recently from a lengthy Carling Cup hangover, they find themselves back in the relegation dogfight. Alex Hleb may feel he is the best ball-player on the team but Seb Larsson appeared vastly superior in this game and had he seen more of the ball, Birmingham may have been able to create more chances. Aside from one break through the middle, Cameron Jerome was comfortably handled by Terry and Luiz and the presence of Nikola Zigic was missed.
HEY BERT: Ryan Bertrand has carried the 'hot prospect' tag for a number of years but having had six loan moves in five years he is yet to establish himself at Stamford Bridge. However, an impressive second-half display - capped with an assist for Malouda's second - after coming on for Ashley Cole brought him swiftly back into the consciousness of the Chelsea faithful. He looked excellent at Nottingham Forest this season and would be a good option for any Premier League side willing to test the Blues with a bid.