Claudio Pizarro, the striker who Chelsea supporters feared might never score in the Premier League again, confounded doubters yesterday to maintain the push towards the top of the table. He might find goals hard to come by against everyone else, but against Birmingham City he is deadly.
The Peruvian striker struck with a header with 11 minutes to go to earn Chelsea their eighth away League success and to mirror the goal he also got against Birmingham on the first weekend of the season. Pity about the 20 other games when he found the net so elusive there were those who believed they had imagined the first.
It was an important, if surprising, strike for Chelsea, who spent much of the afternoon looking like a team likely to lose ground on the leaders. Instead they continue to defy the absence of key figures due to injury and involve-ment in the Africa Nations Cup. That was due to Pizarro, who has found limitless ways to miss since August and was on the pitch only because Shaun Wright-Phillips injured an ankle, but who used his impressive frame to elude his marker from Juliano Belletti's corner and stooped to crash a header from six yards into the roof of the net.
"He had one of his best games for us and deserved to score," Avram Grant, the Chelsea manager, said while refusing to accept his team had been fortunate to claim three points. "Apart from the last 10 minute of the first half we dominated possession. We had to be patient, because Birmingham are a difficult team to play against and we didn't create many chances."
Unsurprisingly, Alex McLeish, Grant's Birmingham counterpart, disagreed. "We matched Chelsea but couldn't quite get the result," he said. "There's no point moping or feeling sorry for ourselves. It was a great performance and the crowd greatly appreciated it."
The facts support McLeish. Chelsea had plenty of the ball but it was the home side who did more with it. Particularly towards the end of the first half, when Birmingham were unfortunate not to take the lead.
Birmingham were relying on tough tackling and counter-attacks until a mistake by the normally impeccable Petr Cech in the 38th minute almost gave them the lead. The Chelsea goalkeeper thumped a clearance 20 yards straight at Cameron Jerome, who had no time to aim so could only stick out his head and hope. The ball rebounded off a post.
Jerome also beat Cech with two shots only to see them blocked by Ricardo Carvalho and Alex, but the most glaring missed opportunity came after 57 minutes. Fabrice Muamba dribbled along the byline, and when he passed towards the near post Sebastian Larsson was two yards out with an open goal. A despairing touch from Cech flicked the ball up a fraction, however, and the ball hit the Swede rather than the other way round and bounced wide and high.
Until this point the service to Nicolas Anelka had been so poor that he would have been forgiven for thinking wistfully of Bolton, but he had a chance after 67 minutes and fluffed it. Florent Malouda gave him space with a clever pass and you would have wagered your house on the French striker beating Maik Taylor. Instead his shot lacked conviction and it was saved with ease. Anelka looked bemused and was probably even more so in the 79th minute when Pizarro got the winner. The man who cannot score had eclipsed the striker who rarely misses.