They were singing in the rain down the Fulham Road yesterday, the anthems serenading not just a steadily improving run of form but in particular the two celebrity summer signings who had previously been struggling to make a significant contribution to it. Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack, recruited at enormous cost after the World Cup amid a desire to bring some superstar glitz to Chelsea, scored the goals that broke Portsmouth's resistance early in the second half, enabling their team to return to the top of the table ahead of Manchester United's home game with Liverpool today.
Portsmouth, briefly on top of the pile themselves not long ago, dragged themselves back into the game with a goal from Benjani Mwaruwari, but would not have deserved to have taken anything more than pride from it, having failed to capitalise on a promising beginning. Jose Mourinho, shrewd as ever, had highlighted the start and finish of the game as dangerous periods for his team, drained by the victory over Barcelona in midweek. They survived each period without undue alarm, though he admitted: "Many times after big matches in midweek, you lose points, so I'm happy we didn't. Early on we had no pace, no intensity and Portsmouth controlled it. Then at 2-1 we could feel the pressure again."
The visitors' defensive triumvirate of David James, Sol Campbell and Linvoy Primus, all in exceptional form this season, must have expected to be kept particularly busy, and they were not disappointed. But for James, Portsmouth would have let in more goals in 90 minutes than the three conceded in eight previous League games. Lacking both regular full-backs, Dejan Stefanovic and Glen Johnson, Harry Redknapp had a seriously weak link on the right in Noé Pamarot. The former Tottenham man was embarrassingly outpaced throughout by Arjen Robben, which is hardly unusual but on this occasion cost his team heavily. The Dutchman tantalised him throughout the first half and then laid on both goals early in the second.
The signs were ominous from the eighth minute, when Robben simply pushed the ball past his marker and sprinted after it, pulling his cross back a fraction behind Didier Drogba, who could only hook it into the crowd. On three more occasions before half-time, Robben decided he was well enough placed to shoot after being played through by Frank Lampard, twice, and Ashley Cole. Each time, however, James was equal to the challenge.
From one of the subsequent corners, James denied Shevchenko and from another he was beaten by John Terry's header but reprieved by Mark Clattenburg ruling Drogba had fouled him. James also saved well from Shevchenko, who then beat him but was offside.
Yet despite all this, Portsmouth had begun brightly enough to have Mourinho prowling his technical area as Nwankwo Kanu headed Gary O'Neil's cross wide. By half-time the visitors' defence, blessed by good fortune and excellent goalkeeping, remained unbeaten, but Redknapp was sufficiently concerned to send on an extra midfielder, Sean Davis, for Kanu, leaving Mwaruwari alone in attack.
O'Neil, the visiting captain, was torn between breaking down the right and sitting back to help Pamarot, and Chelsea continued to threaten that area. The dam had to burst and soon did so twice in quick succession, though the scorers could hardly have been guessed at. First it was Shevchenko, at last, after nine games without a goal. Robben pulled the tempting cross back for him and the Ukrainian swept it in with his left foot.
In the next attack, Robben drilled a longer cross that Drogba nodded back as Matthew Taylor failed to clear, allowing Ballack to head his first Premiership goal. Both scorers were so excited that they rushed to celebrate with the front row of the crowd, and were punished by a yellow card from the over-zealous Clattenburg. It would have been three goals in five minutes had Drogba not moved a fraction too quickly before putting a rebound from another James save into the net. His delight was curtailed by a raised flag.
Chelsea were in celebratory mood but suddenly, and unexpectedly, Portsmouth were back in the game with 21 minutes to play. Mwaruwari kept a cool head as the ball pinged around the box. It was Portsmouth's first goal in seven Premiership meetings with Chelsea and prevented the third-choice goalkeeper, Henrique Hilario, completing a second clean sheet of the week. But he collected another win bonus, and rightly so.