For the sixth successive match Chelsea scored a critical late goal, but this time it was their opponents celebrating after an own goal by Michael Essien gifted Reading a draw at Stamford Bridge yesterday afternoon. To make matters worse for Jose Mourinho, his captain, John Terry, must have an examination on his back this week that could lead to surgery.
The inadvertent equaliser denied Chelsea the chance to move top of the Premiership, if only temporarily. Two hours later Manchester United eased to a 3-1 victory over Wigan at Old Trafford to stretch their lead to four points.
The match had been billed as "The Ordeal of Stephen Hunt", the Reading winger whose collision with Petr Cech left the Chelsea goalkeeper with a fractured skull. Instead, it became a trial of Chelsea's title defence as Hunt watched from the bench while his team-mates silenced the Bridge.
Hunt's omission was, said Steve Coppell, "100 per cent tactical", though the Reading manager admitted it was partly because Hunt's form had been affected by "this match hanging over him". Brynjar Gunnarsson, a midfielder, replaced Hunt as Reading went to 4-5-1 in what proved a successful attempt to stifle Chelsea.
"Like most managers I looked to come here and play carefully," Coppell said, "but if they play well you get beat so you have to disturb what they do well." Reading's resistance revealed Chelsea's dependence on two men, one present, one absent. Didier Drogba was a titan, in defence and attack. He headed both Chelsea goals and headed away a stream of Reading crosses and set pieces. He needed to do the latter because, in the absence of Terry, Chelsea looked vulnerable defensively.
Mourinho admitted he had "no idea" when Terry, who flies to France tomorrow for an examination which could lead to surgery on his back problem, would be back. He added: "We have lost two crucial players, J T and Petr Cech. If you lose one, as we did Petr, you react to that reality, but to lose John at the same time is very difficult.
"But we are surviving. United are four points ahead. Halfway through the season that is not massive. We are still in four competitions so the situation is OK, but we have to do the next month with this group of players."
Chelsea were also missing Joe Cole and Arjen Robben yesterday, but Coppell was short of sympathy. Having seen Chelsea bring more than £50m of players off the bench as they chased a winner, he observed: "They lose one £20m player, they put in a £15m player."
There was certainly enough talent on the pitch for Chelsea to have won in some comfort, but both the collective deployment and individual performance were open to question. Andrei Shevchenko was again fielded out of position, on the left wing, where Graeme Murty easily shackled him until the Ukrainian was withdrawn before the hour. Salomon Kalou, on the other flank, glittered in patches, but too infrequently.
So it was left, once more, to Drogba. He had worried Reading after 28 minutes when Marcus Hahnemann had to shovel away his header from a Frank Lampard free-kick. Eight minutes later he struck the post via a faint deflection off Ibrahima Sonko and from the subsequent corner he rose to head in his 12th goal of the season. With Reading barely crossing the half-way line that seemed that, but they emerged from the interval with fresh intent and were further encouraged when Chelsea began to coast. A flurry of chances, with Kevin Doyle, Leroy Lita and Steve Sidwell going close, seemed to shake Chelsea from their complacency. But then Lampard tried an overambitious manoeuvre in midfield. Glen Little was able to advance, glide past Kalou, and deliver a cross which picked out Lita drifting between Ferreira and Geremi. The former Chelsea junior tucked a neat header past Hilario. Mourinho sent on the cavalry and went to three at the back. Reading, boldly but naïvely pushing for a winner, were soon undone. Shaun Wright-Phillips broke forward and, for once, produced an accurate floating cross which Drogba headed past Hahnemann. Surely, now, Chelsea were home. But, after Doyle and Gunnarsson had missed good chances, Wright-Phillips lost possession and Doyle whipped over a cross which Ashley Cole stabbed into Essien's body, the ball rebounding past Hilario. Cue delight, in Berkshire, Salford, and beyond.
Goals: Drogba (37) 1-0; Lita (66) 1-1; Drogba (71) 2-1; Essien og (85) 2-2.
Chelsea (4-1-2-3): Hilario; Geremi (Mikel, 69), Ferreira, Carvalho, Bridge (Cole, 69); Essien; Ballack, Lampard; Kalou, Drogba, Shevchenko (Wright-Phillips, 57). Substitutes not used: Hedman (gk), Diarra.
Reading (4-5-1): Hahnemann; Murty, Sonko, Ingimarsson, Shorey; Little, Sidwell, Harper, Gunnarsson, Doyle; Lita. Substitutes not used:Federici (gk), Hunt, Oster, Sodje, Seol.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Chelsea Ballack; Reading Lita.
Man of the match: Drogba.
Attendance: 41,885.Reuse content