Birmingham City 0, Chelsea 1: Pizarro pounces to keep depleted Chelsea in chase
Avram Grant may not provide the verbal pyrotechnics offered by his predecessor as Chelsea manager, but in his more measured way he can communicate just as effectively.
In the wake of a suitably measured victory that keeps his depleted team in the chase for the Premier League title, Grant summed up the afternoon's hectic activity with perfect simplicity. "Birmingham played with high spirit," he said. "They fought very well. But we were better."
There is depletion and depletion, of course. While the visitors may currently lack key players through the centre of their team in John Terry and Frank Lampard – both injured – and Didier Drogba – on duty at the African Nations Cup – their replacements – Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Ballack and the £15m signing Nicolas Anelka, making his first start for the Blues – are hardly sub-standard.
The latter showed scintillating flashes of class, linking up with the similarly deft Joe Cole in a fashion which promises riches ahead for the Stamford Bridge faithful, whether Drogba stays there long term or not. The ankle injury which forced the early departure of Shaun Wright-Phillips will almost certainly deprive Chelsea of his services at Everton on Wednesday as they contest the second leg of their Carling Cup semi-final. But Joe Cole believes the team can maintain momentum until the injured and absentees return. "We've shown, in the last few months, what we're capable of," he said. "We've lost some important players but the club is what is important and we keep sticking together and we keep moving forward.
"We didn't expect Manchester United or Arsenal to drop points today; they're games you look at and think they are must-win games, with no disrespect to any of the teams they were playing. If you are going to win the League you have to come to places like this and win. It wasn't pretty.
"If you really look at the games we've played this season, maybe in two or three matches we haven't really performed – today could have been classed as one of them. But we are good at winning games."
This game was not won until 11 minutes from the end, when the substitute, Claudio Pizarro, who had laboured with little effectiveness for much of the game, took advantage of a lapse in concentration at the heart of the Birmingham defence as he arrived late at the near post to crash a header high into the net from Florent Malouda's corner from the right.
There was heartfelt celebration by his team-mates. But once Drogba returns, and Andrei Shevchenko shakes off his latest injury, the Peruvian is likely to find it increasingly difficult to get into the side. Grant insisted though that Pizarro has a future at the club. "We don't hold players who don't," Grant said. "Claudio is not so quick, but he is clever on the ball. He is not a typical striker, he is more of a second striker."
Typical or not, Pizarro made the crucial difference to his team on the day, although Chelsea almost made life harder for themselves with a farcical passage of play in defence seven minutes before half-time which saw an increasingly discomforted Petr Cech receiving the ball to his feet successively from Ashley Cole and Alex under increasing pressure from the motivated opposition.
With awful inevitability, Cech's hurried boot clear found the head of Cameron Jerome on the edge of the area, and Birmingham's centre forward merely had to remain standing to send the ball back towards the untenanted goal. Luckily for Chelsea, it hit the post and bounced clear.
For all the gaps, Grant maintains he is happy with his squad. Birmingham's manager, Alex McLeish, however, who gave a debut to his £5m signing from Everton, James McFadden, is still seeking to bolster a defence that remains high on commitment but perilously low on distribution.
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