Jose Mourinho has never lost a title race in which one of his teams has occupied top spot at the end of February. He has proven his expertise in the negotiation of the final straight, and our remaining 11 games will be an examination of his know-how as our “little horse” attempts to continue its charge to the title. Our 27th game of the season, however, turned out to be a close run thing.
It was an extremely significant match for Chelsea and Everton, with high aspirations occupying the respective minds of Jose and Roberto Martinez: the Premier League crown and the only remaining route into the Champions League. It was a match of extremely high stakes, concluded by John Terry’s injury-time poked finish.
It was a performance of future champions, having produced football of unsatisfactory quality for the majority of the 90 minutes. Everton unquestionably deserved better, but it is implanted in the DNA of champions to deliver cruelty upon opponents who had played well and defended stoutly.
It was a lacklustre display from the Blues in the first half. We struggled to get the ball to our potent three of Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar and as a consequence, failed to create more than a few openings. Tim Howard wasn’t given a detailed examination, with our several potshots lacking the required power to test the American keeper. Kevin Mirallas should have scored, or at least worked Petr Cech, with a half-volley skewed horribly wide after having been supplied by Steven Naismith, our nemesis in August and a late inclusion in the Everton starting eleven. It made for a frustrating half of football as Stamford Bridge looked on, mystified.
The second half provided the Chelsea faithful with a better display as we began to assert our authority. Oscar, who was fairly poor in the first half, was replaced by Ramires at the interval and his tireless running provided us with some much needed energy. As our trio of attacking talent behind Samuel Eto’o found the ball at their feet more often, we were creating our fair share of opportunities. Hazard’s strike was thwarted well by Howard and into the path of Eto’o whose header at goal transformed into a beautifully-weighted lay-off for Branislav Ivanovic, who struck the ball sweetly. It would have arrowed into the net, were it not for Howard’s chest getting in the way.
Everton looked a danger on the counter-attack but they were well snuffed out by our defence, with Terry’s return from a muscle injury providing us with solid resistance alongside Gary Cahill, Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta on the left. Cech was also impressive with a couple of important stops mostly in the opening period.
Jose knew the significance a victory would hold, and made use of our remaining two substitutions, with Fernando Torres replacing Willian minutes before Eto’o departed the pitch for the introduction of Andre Schurrle. It was a shake-up of personnel in our attacking four, with Hazard, Ramires and Schurrle supporting Torres.
Martinez also targeted three points, with the substitutions of Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu and Aiden McGeady stating his intent. It made for an intriguing finale, which ended in raptures of celebration for the home support.
Martinez claimed post-match that we made use of every trick in the book and that Ramires looked for the free-kick which led to Terry’s winner, but there is no truth in his comments which were borne out of frustration. Ramires was on a charge towards the penalty box and his progression cynically halted by Phil Jagielka, resulting in a justified set-piece. Terry, as he has so often done in the past, was on the end of a superb delivery from Lampard as the two of the old guard combined, or did they? There is much debate whether Terry made contact with the ball, as he stated after the game, or if Howard, under pressure, diverted the ball into his own net. After watching it back a few times, it’s still unclear. But does it matter? Certainly not. What is of greater importance is we’re still top of the league.
As Mourinho confirmed during his press conference on Friday, Terry returned to the starting line-up to replace David Luiz, who was ruled out due to injury. That aside, it was the usual 4-2-3-1 with Eto’o as the lone attacker and Lampard picked ahead of Ramires to accompany Nemanja Matic in the deep-lying midfield role and move second in the league appearances chart behind Ryan Giggs.
Starting XI: Cech, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta, Lampard, Matic, Willian, Oscar, Hazard, Eto’o.
Subs: Schwarzer, Cole, Ramires, Schurrle, Salah, Ba.
Laborious victory with champions written all over it.
Giddy-up, little horse! Only 11 more games to go!