Crespo to the rescue for lucky Chelsea

Middlesbrough 1 Chelsea 2
Click to follow

No manager of a leading club, not even at Real Madrid where they sack them after winning the league, suffers quite the stiletto-sharp pressure Claudio Ranieri endures.

The popular perception is that when Chelsea lose their first Premiership fixture Ranieri will be called in to face Roman Abramovich, who, while stroking a white cat, will announce: "We do not tolerate failure, Tinkerman," before pressing a button and sending the Chelsea manager into a pool of piranhas.

The reality of Ranieri's fate will be very different, but until Hernan Crespo's winner two minutes from time, this looked to be the week that would try Abramovich's patience, which, unlike his finances, appears to be a very finite resource. Money, famously, cannot buy luck and after a second half in which Chelsea were pulled and stretched almost beyond endurance, this was what they required to remain a point behind Arsenal with a game in hand.

Ranieri considered Chelsea were close to Arsenal and Manchester United only in terms of points. "We are not used to coping when something strange happens," he said. "When Middlesbrough had us under pressure, we had to be calm and close down spaces.

"When Arsenal played Liverpool in the last five minutes, they kept possession, Liverpool could not get near the ball. We wanted to score a third goal and almost let Middlesbrough back in. We have a good fighting spirit but we must improve our patience and our tactics."

Until Szilard Nemeth drove home the equaliser precisely 19 seconds after the restart, it seemed Chelsea - who made seven changes from the side beaten by Besiktas in midweek - would require none of the former and little of the latter. In three-quarters of an hour, Middlesbrough, who allowed Damien Duff and Jesper Gronkjaer a free hand on either flank, had not won so much as a corner, let alone forced Carlo Cudicini into a save.

They were transformed by a man whom Abramovich might have been interested in signing a year ago. Gaizka Mendieta's decline at Lazio and Barcelona was so acute that some wondered if the Basque would ever regain the skills which graced two European Cup finals. Yet from the moment the second half began, Mendieta drove Boro forward in the manner Juninho - who did not appear until the final minute - once did.

It was his run, which absorbed the attentions of three Chelsea defenders before a beautifully measured pass found Nemeth, that created the equaliser. Another shot across the face of Cudicini's goal needed only the merest touch from Malcolm Christie's boots to send the home side ahead, while a free-kick deceived John Terry and conjured another opportunity for Christie. It was virtuoso stuff.

"You will not see any team dominate Chelsea as much as we did," said his manager, Steve McClaren. "In Mendieta we have someone who can win you a football match in a split second."

Middlesbrough could and should have won the game, most notably when a pass from Christie left George Boateng with just Cudicini to beat and also when the Chelsea keeper deflected a vicious volley from Doriva.

Just as happened to Liverpool on Saturday, Middlesbrough paid for the squandered chances. Crespo, part of £45m worth of talent on Ranieri's bench, had been, according to his manager, operating at "60 per cent capacity", unused to the rhythm of the English game.

The Argentinian had already missed one glaring opportunity, driving the ball squarely into Mark Schwarzer's face when through on goal. But two minutes from time, after Duff crossed to the far post, he managed to convert from a far tighter angle.

In a very different first half, one they dominated effortlessly, Duff created Chelsea's opening goal after Frank Lampard had seized the ball from Boateng with a brutally effective challenge. The ball was threaded through to Eidur Gudjohnsen, who had the time, space and confidence to beat Schwarzer.

When Terry headed a free-kick from Lampard, who imposed himself on the first half the way Mendieta did on the second, against the bar, it appeared this would be a routine, rather dull victory for Chelsea, a further sign of the gulf between the top three and the rest. In the event it almost proved, pleasingly for football if not for Abramovich, that having excellent players is not by itself enough.

Goals: Gudjohnsen (17) 0-1; Nemeth (46) 1-1; Crespo (88) 1-2.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer 7; Mills 5, Riggott 5, Cooper 6, Queudrue 4; Mendieta 8, Boateng 6, Doriva 6 (Juninho 89), Greening 5; Christie 7 (Ricketts, 82), Nemeth 7 (Downing, 87). Substitutes not used: Davies, Jones (gk).

Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini 6; Johnson 4, Terry 7, Huth 6, Bridge 5; Gronkjaer 6 (Cole, 79), Lampard 7, Makalele 5, Duff 7; Gudjohnsen 6 (Mutu, 79), Hasselbaink 4 (Crespo 6, h-t). Substitutes not used: Geremi, Ambrosio (gk).

Referee: M Halsey (Bolton) 7.

Booked: Middlesbrough: Christie. Chelsea: Hasselbaink, Huth.

Man of the match: Mendieta.

Attendance: 29,170.