The Guardian, Dominic Fifield: “Beating Birmingham City in a Premier League match never used to constitute a statement of intent but, with this victory, Chelsea sent out a message to their title rivals. Carlo Ancelotti’s side returned to the top of the last night, edging ahead of Manchester United and Arsenal, having barely broken sweat against the top-flight’s form team.”
Daily Telegraph, Jason Burt: “Birmingham City arrived at the Bridge with a painstakingly, proudly constructed record of 15 unbeaten matches. A wall of formidable resistance, surely? It met a wrecking ball. Chelsea smashed them and, once more, sit handsomely on top of the Premier League pile. Lords of the manor. It was like a house of cards being disdainfully cuffed. And Joe Cole, dancing, jinking Joe on this form, was Chelsea’s ace in the pack. A diamond performance.”
The Times, Matt Hughes: “Carlo Ancelotti’s side returned to the top of the Barclays Premier League with a victory as routine as it was predictable and are likely to have stretched their lead to four points by the time Arsenal meet Manchester United on Sunday. Any team finishing above them in May will surely be crowned champions.”
Official Chelsea FC Website: “Chelsea returned to the top of the Premier League with a swaggering display against Birmingham at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night. It was a superb 90 minutes, with Birmingham’s notoriously hard to beat defence broken down time and again…”
So, first of all an apology. I missed the first ten minutes of the game as I didn’t get back from work until late, so everything that follows is only based on the eighty minutes I saw. Hopefully the first ten minutes weren’t so different from the rest of the game, though obviously I did miss out on the opening goal.
We were up against a Birmingham team that are on the best run in the club’s history – 15 unbeaten. We also struggled to dominate in a goalless draw played a month ago at their place. Since then we have been in fine form though, winning four out of four and scoring 16 goals in the process. And let’s face it, we go on 15 games unbeaten runs just for fun, so Chelsea went into this game firm favourites.
Carlo stuck with the 4-5-1 while Drogs is still away in Africa:
Cech, A Cole, Terry, Carvalho, Ivanovic, Malouda, Lampard, Deco (playing as the ‘steering wheel’), Ballack, J Cole, Anelka.
Without trying to get to tactical, as frankly I got a bit lost reading some of the analysis of the Cole/Lampard/Malouda balance last week, the 4-5-1 again seemed to be subtly different from Mourinho’s, allowing Malouda a lot of freedom. In my view it was quite a Mourinho-esque performance though.
The first half
In the fifth minute Joe Cole did some good work on the right, crossed for Malouda, and a short range header put us one-nil up. Another strong home start from Chelsea follows on from the Sunderland game where we really went out and grabbed the match by the throat from the opening whistle. We then continued to dominate, Ivanovic shooting narrowly wide and Hart saving from Lamps. The opening half hour is all Chelsea: a few dribbles and shots from Joe, and some deflections earning us corners after blocks from the Birmingham defence. Lampard is dictating play, spraying the ball about and trying to find that killer pass.
Despite the dominance and a few saves from Hart we still haven’t had that gilt-edged chance for the second, and this is down to deep (and sometimes desperate) defending from Birmingham, a lot of which relies on the whole team concentrating. Luckily for us after half an hour of chasing shadows they switch off for a fraction of a second as Ballack knocks it square from the right to Super Frank, who has five yards of space. By the time the defender has closed the gap the ball is nestled in the bottom left corner of the goal. 2-0.
A few minutes later Chelsea give away two free kicks in quick succession. A feeling of deja vu descends because in both cases when Terry starts waving the line of defenders up the pitch the line just seems to be drop deeper. Luckily the first free kick is poor, and the second Cech is able to claim in a crowded area. I had imagined we’d ironed out this particular issue on the training pitch. A bit of impetus is needed to make sure we don’t coast too much, and just before half time Ballack provides it. Chasing down a misplaced pass he gives 100% to make sure the ball doesn’t roll out for a City goal kick, sliding round the defender and forcing him to keep the ball in play. The loose ball then ends up with Bowyer on the touch line, and running back Ze German catches him in possession with a sliding challenge that causes Chelsea to win the throw. It sums up his half really; Ballack has been ruthless whilst Brum’s midfield has been toothless.
The second half
Ten minutes or so into the second half we nearly got the second but Hart saves well from Ballack’s header back across goal after Ashley crossed in. We’ve started where we left off, dominating the game from midfield, and I can’t help feeling if we just up the pace we’ll get the third and maybe the floodgates will open. Malouda is also putting in a few nice crosses from the left, and the next chance comes from one of his corners, but it drops behind Terry and his overhead kick ends up in the stands.
Another ten minutes of Chelsea domination follows before Ivanovic plays a beautiful Lampard-esque reverse pass through to Joe Cole on the right, who squares first time for Malouda. His shot is hard and low but just to close to Hart. Birmingham then wake up, and it is Chelsea’s turn to defend for a few minutes. As we get the offside trap wrong it leaves a Birmingham player in acres of space by the byline on the left, but rather than capitalising on the mistake he hits a cross across the area, which Lamps heads clear. He’d obviously spotted the danger and tracked his man all the way back into our area, and in the end it’s all pretty simple to keep Brum at bay.
Chelsea create the next chance after Deco nips in to rob the ball in the Birmingham half. We scramble it into the area and the ball bounces off Nico and Malouda near the six yard box before Hart is able to make a straightforward save from an Ashley Cole snap shot.
We continue the scrappy play a few minutes later when our back four obviously decide they want a bit more to do. As Benitez (on for McFadden) harmlessly chases down the ball Carvalho knocks it to Terry, who lays it back to Cech to thump up field. Instead he plays it back to Riccy again, but the ball isn’t passed on the floor and by the time it’s under control Riccy is under pressure and so smashes it straight into the head of an opposition player twenty yards away. It bounces to Benitez, who Terry closes down immediately. The ball then breaks to Fahey, and Cech atones for his part in the cock-up with a good tip over the bar.
Rather than be spurred on by that chance, for the rest of the match Birmingham continue to plod on in the same vein. Or, to put it another way, we continue to utterly dominate. Joe Cole is substituted on the eighty-minute mark for Zhirkov, and shortly afterwards Sturridge comes on for Anelka. In the final minute Brum try one more move but run out of ideas in our half, and Deco sets up a counter attack by feeding Malouda on the right. Sturridge breaks outside him, bursting forward, but Malouda instead plays it the other way for Lampard to receive just on the edge of the area. One touch with his right and then Frank drives it left footed back across Hart. Game over.
As requested by BlueBoyDave, I decided to go with a Roman-army theme for the ratings tonight.
- Legionary – Joe Cole. A good soldier, but not yet shown enough to earn the double wages that are pocketed by the…
- Optios – Cech and Carvalho. Some may think it a bit harsh to rate these two above Joe Cole, especially as they conspired to almost gift Brum a goal, but I feel although they did less on the whole they did it better.
- Centurions – Ashley Cole, Terry, Ivanovic, Anelka, Deco, Ballack. All real leaders tonight. Terry and Ballack (especially in the first half) may just have edged above the others, but they all performed well. Which English sides wouldn’t all these players walk into? Answer: none.
- Primus Pilus – The head centurions, Lamps and Malouda. Both fantastic for 90 minutes (OK, I’m guessing about the first 10, but hey). Lampard has really flourished with the return to 4-5-1. Is it possible he’ll get to 20 goals for the season after the slow start? I don’t really care if he continues to dictate play like he did today. With him on form in midfield that clean sheet looks so much easier.
So I mentioned the Mourinho-esque performance earlier; by this I meant we controlled the game and once we had the second goal were happy to keep it that way and not go all out for more. Part of this may be down to Birmingham who to my mind showed a lack of ambition in trying to regain parity, defending deep and restricting us to playing the ball about in front of their lines of defence. I don’t think we weren’t trying to score, we just didn’t go hell for leather for the third and fourth. Many of our chances were barely chances at all, either counter attacks where Brum still had all four defenders back or shots from 25 yards. My match report maybe doesn’t do justice to the chances we created, reflected by the 17 shots on target and eight corners, but there are only so many times you can write about a shot coming in under pressure and the ‘keeper making a regulation stop. We also had some good crosses come in, particularly from Malouda who was good with the corners too.
Picking out Malouda also means I should mention a couple of other individuals too I guess, and I’ll pick on Deco and Joe Cole. Deco had a good game in the ‘steering wheel’, and he is finally beginning to win me round. He’ll never be a Chelsea great (how I hope he proves me wrong by scoring in a cup final), but it was nice to see him win some challenges and put in the effort on the fundamentals, like getting to the ball first, rather than just expecting to be the creator and nothing else. Joe Cole gets a mention as I think he is coming off badly playing opposite Malouda. Florent seems tactically more astute, and combines with Ashley, Frank and Nico well, whereas for me Joe hasn’t really found his place in Carlo’s team. I wonder if Joe would be able to enjoy his game more if it was Drogba as the lone striker rather than Anelka – he’d certainly know where to expect Drog to be more of the time.
Reading those two paragraphs again they seem a bit downbeat, but actually I thought we bordered on the majestic at times. At least eight of our team get an 8/10 and above. McLeish’s side didn’t get a look in, with their best chance coming from a Chelsea mistake, and the fact a team who are unbeaten in 15 didn’t have any ideas how to get back in the game showed quite how good we were. I have a feeling that, perhaps with the exception of the Arse and Man Ure, any side in front of us tonight would just not have been able to get to grips with the game. The whole team seemed determined to win the game and return to the top of the league. Which we did.
P.S. I’m still chuckling at Liverpoo…
Keep the Blue Flag Flying High!