No one ever said it would be pretty, but even the arch pragmatism of Jose Mourinho seemed to be surprised by the sheer determination it takes to beat Bolton Wanderers. The Chelsea manager has a habit of drawing great symbolism from victories on northern nights like these but when he comes to select the season's highlights he may choose to overlook this visit to the Reebok Stadium altogether.
No surprise that Michael Ballack's winning goal in first-half injury-time was from a corner because set-piece attacks were how both sides approached the match - like two artillery outposts shelling the front lines. It was at Bolton that Chelsea ended their 50-year wait to be English champions in 2005, this time there was nothing quite so memorable. Just a refusal to succumb to Bolton that was symbolised by John Terry.
It meant so much more as the goals went in at Old Trafford because by the time that Chelsea face Arsenal on 10 December they could be nine points behind Manchester United, albeit with two games in hand. Not that it seemed to concern Mourinho who declared the last four days in Manchester and Lancashire much to his satisfaction. "If things had gone wrong we could have left here eight or nine points behind," he said. "That it is only three is very positive."
It is the second half of the season that Mourinho believes United face the greater tests and it sounds like a message that he will be punting relentlessly as the season progresses. Already he was warming to the task last night. "When you look at United's fixtures compared to ours," he said, "I am happy to be behind, and now is the time for us to win consecutive matches and go to the top of the league".
It was a grinding, fragmented match which had all the blood and thunder but none of the edge that has characterised other more memorable Chelsea away wins. Sam Allardyce's only complaint was that Ballack's goal came very late in first-half injury-time. He timed it at 30 seconds over the two minutes that referee Steve Bennett had allotted but after the battering Bolton had taken over the course of the first 45 minutes Allardyce did not deny that it was what they deserved.
"When they have a grip on the game we hoped we could get in at half-time 0-0 so conceding in that split second was so disappointing," he said. The second half performance from Bolton was spirited to say the least although even their manager would concede that their finishing was desperate. The real class was in midfield with Ivan Campo who proved he is not too old to slip the ball through the legs of an international superstar like Ballack.
Arjen Robben and Joe Cole were both missing from the squad and the Englishman, Mourinho said, will be out for at least two weeks with a bruised foot. Robben's problem is more mysterious as he was first passed as fit by the club only for Mourinho to later insist that he was injured. Increasingly when it comes to the tough games, and this was certainly one, there is no place for Chelsea's delicate Dutchman.
Robben's exclusion must be all the more galling for the continued faith that Mourinho shows in Andrei Shevchenko who, once again, made that familiar weary trudge to the bench on 77 minutes. The £31m man could point to a 25-yard shot that was tipped over by Jussi Jaaskelainen in first half injury-time that led to the corner from which Ballack scored. But there was not a whole lot else - and Mourinho was moved to make another extensive defence of his striker afterwards.
"Normally such a beautiful shot will get you a goal but he knows that I will support him to the maximum I can," Mourinho said. "I am not a man for statistics but somebody told me that Thierry Henry scored one goal in 12 matches when he first came to Arsenal. The most difficult position in football is the striker: they live on goals. Nobody counts how many interceptions a defender makes."
Certainly Ricardo Carvalho did not manage one when Nicolas Anelka beat him for Bolton's best chance of the first half, only expertly denied by a saving tackle from Claude Makelele. The Portuguese defender had come face to face with Campo for a fairly appalling dive in the first half which was dominated by Chelsea. They had increased the pressure right up to when Ballack stole in front of Kevin Davies to glance in the match-winner on the stroke of half-time.
The referee Bennett was booed off at half-time but it was hardly his fault that Bolton had been hit with a set-piece. Carlo Cudicini was solid for Chelsea, blocking Campo's 53rd minute free-kick when it bounced across the box out of the reach of El-Hadji Diouf. The winger embarrassed Ballack with his quick feet but could not direct his shot better when Terry's header fell to him outside the box.
Diouf had one last chance in the closing stages, an up and under which ended with Jaaskelainen up for the corner. As far as sophistication went last night, that just about summed the game up: not that it will matter to Mourinho.
Goal: Ballack (45) 0-1.
Bolton Wanderers (4-1-2-3): Jaaskelainen; Hunt, Faye, Meite, Ben Haim; Campo; Nolan, Speed; Davies (Vaz Te, 76), Anelka, Diouf. Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Stelios, Pedersen, Tal.
Chelsea (4-1-3-2): Cudicini; Geremi, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Makelele; Essien, Ballack, Lampard; Shevchenko (Kalou, 77), Drogba (Mikel, 89). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Boulahrouz, Wright-Phillips.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Bolton Campo, Faye, Nolan; Chelsea Carvalho.
Man of the match: Terry.
Attendance: 23,559.Reuse content