A vacancy remains in Carlo Ancelotti's team for a trequartista – the man who plays "between the lines", or "in the hole", linking midfield and attack. Against Fulham, today, Joe Cole will again audition for the position he believes he was born for but has yet to fill consistently. Roy Hodgson being one of the game's more tactically astute coaches, Cole is likely to find Chris Baird dogging his movement once his role becomes clear.
Cole's challenge will be to overcome such attention and prove he is the man who can help Chelsea shrug off the imminent loss of Didier Drogba. Contrary to earlier reports, Ancelotti said, after Chelsea failed to score on Saturday for the first time in eight months, that he would "not be changing the system" when the Ivorian departs for the African Nations Cup. Since Ancelotti has previously indicated he will not be recalling Franco di Santo from his loan at Ewood Park, this suggests Nicolas Anelka, when he returns from injury, will be partnered by a rookie, Daniel Sturridge or Fabio Borini. Either way Chelsea will not have the option of playing long to Drogba safe in the knowledge he has the strength to keep possession, or fashion a chance for himself.
All of which adds to the creative burden on whichever player occupies the apex of Ancelotti's diamond. On Saturday he trialled Florent Malouda for an hour, then Frank Lampard, then Cole. The most impressive, surprisingly because he is better known as a runner, with and without the ball, was Lampard.
The England midfielder's clever passing provided chances for Ashley Cole, Malouda and Salomon Kalou. However, at this stage the game was very open with Birmingham also seeking a goal and space was easy to find. When it was at a premium none of the trio shone.
"I wanted to give Malouda the opportunity to play in the position," said Ancelotti. "Some things he did were very good. I think we can use him in that position. Cole I think has quality, but after nine months it is not easy to do your best immediately. He has to improve, he has to stay focused, he has to keep his confidence. He will play against Fulham and I think he will show he is fantastic."
Maybe. It will not help that he comes into a team which, by Ancelotti's own admission, has "lost a bit of confidence in our play". He added: "We did very well until the match against Arsenal [a 3-0 Chelsea victory on 29 November]. Now we have gone a little bit down but that is normal. There are a lot of matches and it is impossible to stay in top condition all the time. Against Birmingham I think there were good signs for the future."
There were a few. Chelsea created six chances from open play, some gilt-edged, and another four opportunities at set-plays. That they failed to score was due to poor finishing (a key indicator of low confidence) and excellent goalkeeping by Joe Hart. The World Cup hopeful did his prospects much good with a commanding performance despite receiving an accidental whack from Kalou which necessitated two staples – "The physio put them in when I wasn't looking, I'd never have let him if I'd known," winced the 22-year-old. "He'll have a sore head but he'll be OK," said his manager, Alex McLeish
Hart's defiance was matched elsewhere, from Christian Benitez and Cameron Jerome, who kept stretching Chelsea's defence, to a committed and organised back four. "For Chelsea not to score for the first time in 34 games is incredible," said McLeish. "It is a measure of how well we are playing."
Birmingham should even have had a 34th-minute goal, the linesman failing to notice a prone Drogba playing Benitez onside when he tapped in. A draw was, however, a fair reflection, for despite Malouda's late dismissal for two yellow cards, and the confidence Birmingham have garnered from a 10-match unbeaten run, it was the home side who resorted to running the clock down by the corner flag. Chelsea may not be at their optimum level at present, but even buoyant opponents know they remain a team that deserves the utmost respect.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Hart; Carr, R Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson (D Johnson, 87), Ferguson, Bowyer, McFadden (Fahey, 77); Jerome, Benitez. Substitutes not used: Maik Taylor (gk), Phillips, McSheffrey, Carsley, Vignal.
Chelsea (4-1-2-1-2): Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, A Cole; Mikel (Ballack, 85); Belletti, Lampard (J Cole, 78); Malouda; Drogba, Sturridge (Kalou, 67). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Carvalho, Zhirkov, Ferreira.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Booked: Birmingham City Bowyer; Chelsea Malouda.
Sent off: Chelsea Malouda (89).
Man of the match: Hart.
Attendance: 28,958.Reuse content