The two-horse race that is the Premiership this season - one nag more than for the past two campaigns - goes into the last few furlongs with the same six lengths between the protagonists. Chelsea, like Manchester United, were not at their best yesterday in what Jose Mourinho had called the second of "five cup finals" this month - this one was more Millwall against United than Liverpool against West Ham.
But on a poor pitch, the champions improved in the second half to inflict a first defeat of 2007 on Gareth Southgate's dogged Middlesbrough. That ensured that they will make it three years unbeaten at home; though merely avoiding defeat, as Mourinho had emphasised, was not the objective yesterday.
As happens too often to be coincidental, one of his substitutions reaped rich reward, Arjen Robben having barely removed his tracksuit before forcing the crucial second goal to deflate the visitors. Didier Drogba's double, one just before the interval and the other late on, carried him to 25 for the season and in Andriy Shevchenko, he had a partner working harder and growing in confidence. Perhaps he could pass some of both qualities on to the other major summer acquisition Michael Ballack, who was not missed here.
The strikers were up against a defence lacking not only Jonathan Woodgate who - it almost goes without saying - had failed to come through England's game in midweek without suffering an injury, but also Robert Huth, who Mourinho must surely regret selling last summer. Yesterday John Terry was back but Ricardo Carvalho had developed flu so Michael Essien was forced to remain in the centre of defence. The potentially menacing partnership of Mark Viduka and Yakubu gave them little trouble, Viduka wasting Boro's best chance of the game from a free header. So Chelsea completed a fifth successive clean sheet, during which time they have scored 14 times.
Mourinho kept his thoughts on the performance to himself, rushing off for a few days at home and sending his rather less verbose assistant Steve Clarke to face the media. "A difficult first half and a great time to score just before half-time," was Clarke's perfunctory summary.
It would have been more entertaining to hear his boss's version of a touchline spat with Southgate in the first half. The Middlesbrough manager, once such a mild-mannered young man, leapt to his feet in protest at Drogba's clumsy challenge on Emanuel Pogatetz, drawing a finger-to-lips rebuke from Mourinho. Southgate responded angrily and the fourth official had to step between them. "Apparently I'm not allowed to give an opinion on a decision," Southgate said.
Little had happened before that, except Drogba hitting two shots wide and Viduka heading Stewart Downing's cross feebly wide. Then, right on half-time, Abel Xavier passed up two opportunities to clear following a scramble and Chelsea won a free-kick a yard outside the penalty area. All 10 outfield players lined up to defend it, but Terry and Claude Makelele pulled out of the wall to leave a gap through which Drogba placed a shot that Mark Schwarzer should have come closer to saving.
Forcing Julio Arca to head off the line from Shevchenko early in the second half might have induced a sense of complacency among the crowd, if not the home side. Both elements were reminded how fragile the one-goal margin was when Middlesbrough's left back Andrew Taylor essayed a cross from the touchline that dipped over Petr Cech and hit the crossbar.
However, an injury then offered Mourinho the opportunity for a first substitution that had a dramatic effect. Diarra hobbled off to be replaced by Robben, returning for the first time since coming off early in last month's defeat at Liverpool. Within 30 seconds, the Dutchman fell over while bursting into the penalty area but jumped up quickly enough for once to latch onto Salomon Kalou's lay-off and hit a shot that the unfortunate Xavier diverted past a helpless goalkeeper. With eight minutes remaining, Drogba sealed the victory when he struck a free-kick from out on the left that flew into the far corner of the net via Andrew Davies's head.
"We gave a decent account of ourselves," Southgate insisted. That has not been sufficient to bring any team a Premiership victory here since a chap called Claudio Ranieri was Chelsea's manager.Reuse content