Blackburn Rovers 0 Chelsea 1: Rovers robbed by Cole to keep Chelsea in race
Chelsea were second best in almost every department at Ewood Park yesterday but Joe Cole's first-half goal was enough to make sure they maintain their position as the third force in English football this morning. On effort, chances and near misses, Blackburn would have been handed the points, and Chelsea would have flown back south nine points behind Arsenal and eight behind Manchester United.
Instead the gap is "only" six and five, and the west Londoners will still believe they have what it takes to stay in contention.
Whether that is a realistic view is another matter. For the most part, they served up turkey and were almost stuffed for their troubles. They face losing four players next month on duty in the African Nations Cup, and one of those, Didier Drogba, is already being sorely missed up front. Chelsea's captain, John Terry, will be missing for some time yet and his deputy in defence yesterday, Alex, is shadow cover on this evidence.
A goalkeeping crisis also appears to be looming. Peter Cech was forced off in agony with a strain to his side yesterday, and Carlo Cudicini is unavailable as his deputy for the moment after injuring his ribs in training. Both players will be assessed in the coming days. Their absences meant Chelsea played the last half an hour with a man between the posts – Hilario – who had not featured at all since January.
While Michael Ballack is on the brink of a consistent return – he did not feature yesterday – and the Stamford Bridge squad and resources are theoretically deep, it will take victories considerably more convincing than this one to have the faithful at the Emirates or Old Trafford quivering in their boots. Still, Chelsea's manager, Avram Grant, was predictably delighted with the spoils and relieved at least that his side are not drifting further behind for now. "It's not easy to play here," he said. "We could only draw 0-0 at home with Blackburn so we knew it would be tough. I'm happy with the fighting spirit. It was very important to take the points, especially as the other teams at the top all won this weekend. The goal was good. One touch from [Salomon] Kalou, great movement [by Cole]."
That move was the smoothest of the rare coherent sweeps forward by the visitors. It came in the 22nd minute when John Mikel won the ball with a tackle in the middle and passed to Frank Lampard.
Kalou hit a sweet first-touch diagonal pass to put Cole through, although there was still a surge of pace needed for the England midfielder to get past Ryan Nelsen. As he did so, he stretched for his shot, struck it cleanly and wheeled away to celebrate in the knowledge it was unstoppable.
The other big talking points all involved goalkeepers. In the first half, Cech pulled off one outstanding save from Steven Reid to keep Chelsea ahead. He was crouching low at the time, and stretched high to his left to push the ball away.
With 20 minutes remaining and with Hilario in goal, it was the Portuguese's turn to shine, diving superbly to his left to stop a Roque Santa Cruz header for what seemed a certain equaliser. The transition between the two keepers, early in the second half, also grabbed the attention, although not, farcically, of Grant, at least for a while.
Cech had earlier collided accidentally with Santa Cruz, and needed five minutes' treatment. He said he would stay on. Then he wanted off. Grant missed this signal and left him, unable to kick or even walk without wincing, in place for almost 10 minutes more.
"We showed balls out there today," said Mark Hughes, their manager. "We were dynamic. David [Bentley] was excellent playing just off the front. We hit the bar several times. And then we got done by a sucker punch. We showed good quality, created chances. But Chelsea are very adept at defending a lead and in the last 15 minutes they were effective at running the clock down, which is something they're good at."
All true. Bentley hit the bar in the sixth minute, and again with a dipping free-kick in the 10th. He then supplied Santa Cruz, who shot just wide, before Andrei Shevchenko hooked over at the other end. Chelsea scored before Reid was thwarted by Cech.
Brad Friedel then saved from Lampard, Bentley helped to create another chance that skimmed the bar and half-time arrived with Chelsea somehow in front. It was eventually the referee, Steve Bennett, who forced Grant to substitute Cech because he could clearly not continue. Blackburn upped the pressure again, causing early nerves for a flailing Hilario before he settled to make his own fine stop from Santa Cruz.
Goal: J Cole (22) 0-1
Blackburn Rovers (4-5-1): Friedel; Emerton, Khizanishvili, Nelsen, Warnock; Reid, Dunn, Tugay (Roberts, 73), Pedersen, Bentley; Santa Cruz. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Savage, McCarthy, Mokoena.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cech (Hilario, 64); Ferreira, Alex, Carvalho, A Cole; Essien, Mikel, Lampard, J Cole (Pizarro, 81); Shevchenko (Wright-Phillips, 87), Kalou. Substitutes not used: Ballack, Ben-Haim.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Blackburn Dunn; Chelsea Alex, Carvalho.
Man of the match: Bentley.
The top four's holiday fixtures
* ARSENAL: 26 Dec Portsmouth (a); 29 Dec Everton (a); 1 Jan West Ham (h).
* Manchester Utd: 26 Dec Sunderland (a); 29 Dec West Ham (a); 1 Jan Birmingham (h).
* Chelsea: 26 Dec Aston Villa (h); 29 Dec Newcastle (h); 1 Jan Fulham (a).
* Manchester City: 27 Dec Blackburn (h); 30 Dec Liverpool (h); 2 Jan Newcastle (a).