Chelsea will this week turn their attention to a trio of cup competitions confident that their domestic title challenge is back on course. Manchester United may remain six points clear but both clubs know the champions' mid-season crisis appears to be over, which means the leaders have no margin for error. "We'd prefer to be in front, but the chase is on," said Steve Clarke, Chelsea's assistant manager.
The lie of the fixtures means United could be 12 points clear by 3 March, when Chelsea "put their Premiership head back on" as one of their former managers would have said. That will not concern the present manager, Jose Mourinho, not now he has John Terry, Petr Cech and Arjen Robben back, Andrei Shevchenko at last showing flickers of form, and the team's confidence restored.
Roman Abramovich is still absent, but that may be because the Chelsea owner now knows enough about football to be able to tell the difference between an efficient team and a thrilling one. For this was another of those matches which makes one realise what a genius chief executive Richard Scudamore is in persuading the world's broadcasters to pay ever-increasing sums of money to screen the Premiership.
Middlesbrough, whose record against Chelsea is better than most, would have gone ahead had Mark Viduka not missed an early free header. They nevertheless frustrated the home side until conceding a sloppy free-kick in first-half injury time. After Terry used his muscle to dismantle Boro's wall, Didier Drogba steered his shot through it.
In a one-sided second half, Robben, with his first touches, tricked his way past two opponents, dived, got up, then had a shot which Abel Xavier diverted past his own goalkeeper. Another deflection, off Andrew Davies, then enabled Drogba to score his 25th goal of the season and seal a flattering scoreline.
Davies was unfortunate, as he had otherwise scrambled well, though played out of position. That decision spoke volumes in a week when the quality of young English players has been hotly debated. Middlesbrough are one of the few clubs prepared to invest in native talent and Gareth Southgate has proved himself happy to play them. Yet even they fielded seven foreigners in the starting line-up. Davies is by trade a centre-half but when Jonathan Woodgate picked up a hamstring injury, Southgate preferred the erratic Xavier, who is normally a full-back.
"At least Davies played," responded Southgate, "and he has been doing well at full-back." The Middlesbrough manager then admitted: "You tend to err on the side of experience when you can. For much of this season we have had a very young side, but it's about getting that balance."
Although Andrew Taylor, on the other flank, also showed promise, the best young player on view was, inevitably, foreign. Lassana Diarra has had his problems at Chelsea but the 21-year-old Frenchman has thrived with a run of games despite playing the majority out of position. On Saturday the holding midfielder was deployed in right midfield, Michael Essien's position, and he proved a decent understudy.
Referring to Mourinho's recent criticism of Diarra's attitude, Clarke said: "I think if you've got people around you who are not giving you the right advice it can be difficult for young boys. He's proved that he's an intelligent boy because he's listened to good people who have given him good advice. Now he's in the team and playing very well."
Goals: Drogba (45) 1-0; Xavier og (66) 2-0; Drogba (83) 3-0.
Chelsea (4-1-2-3): Cech; Ferreira, Essien, Terry, Bridge; Makelele; Diarra (Robben, 65), Lampard; Shevchenko (Geremi, 88), Drogba, Kalou (Wright-Phillips, 85). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Boulahrouz.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Davies, Xavier, Pogatetz, Taylor; Morrison (Euell, 73), Boateng, Arca (Rochemback, 84), Downing; Viduka (Christie, 84), Yakubu. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Hines.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Middlesbrough Downing.
Man of the match: Drogba.
Attendance: 41,699.Reuse content