Drogba sends Chelsea into overdrive

Chelsea 2 - Middlesbrough 0
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The Independent Football

There are now seven points between Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and the rest of English football's universe and if they dispose with the Premiership's upwardly mobile sides as easily as this, then pray for those below Middlesbrough. It was not simply a case of two emphatic goals from Didier Drogba last night but an outright challenge to Arsenal and Manchester United that the pursuing pack were unable to meet.

The French striker struck swiftly and decisively, twice in 17 minutes, and Stamford Bridge sat back to await the dispatches from Highbury and Old Trafford. From then it dawned slowly that their first championship since 1955 was becoming a reality. Never mind the two goals from Drogba, back to the devastating form that preceded his thigh injury, or Chelsea's 16th clean sheet of the season. This was an unanswerable destruction of a team just six places off the Premiership's summit.

The Christmas period that was supposed to be the undoing of Mourinho has yielded him 12 points and a claim on the bragging rights that you would have expected this curt little man to find irresistible. All the more surprising then, that he should send his assistant Steve Clarke to explain how Chelsea would not be relenting now that they had increased their lead on Arsenal. "It was," Clarke explained, "a good night for us."

"We don't have to worry about results elsewhere because we are top of the League and enjoying it," he said. "We set out to pick up 12 points over Christmas and that is exactly what we have done. We have been out in front for a long time. I can't see how the pressure will be any different for us now."

The weight of evidence to support his claim has become overwhelming. This was not only Chelsea's 16th clean sheet of the season but the fifth in a row and that's before an examination of their attacking options. In Gareth Southgate, Middlesbrough have a defender who is no Premiership striker's fool but he could not begin to contain Drogba. Even despite six weeks away, the striker has returned nine goals.

As with many of the humiliations that have been inflicted on visitors to Stamford Bridge this season, there was plenty of advance warning for Middlesbrough ­ but nothing they could do about it. A hint of the anguish about to be inflicted came as early as the fifth minute when Drogba pounded a header from Arjen Robben's corner into the arms of Mark Schwarzer.

Then, on 12 minutes, Drogba killed a Petr Cech clearance on his thigh and volleyed at Schwarzer. The breakthrough was just a matter of time. Three minutes later Frank Lampard collected a short return pass from Robben in midfield and unzipped Middlesbrough with one pass through the middle. Southgate was heaved aside by Drogba who thumped his shot inside the post.

It was a Middlesbrough defence that had already begun losing the faith that lined up for Lampard's free-kick from the left side. They lost Drogba in the scramble for positions as the ball was struck and the striker connected with a header that beat Schwarzer in an instant. With 87 goals for Chelsea in his four years at the club, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink can only have wondered from the other end at the goal-providing machine that has been built around his replacement.

Steve McClaren felt no blame for his side that he said had struggled through the "absolutely ridiculous" intensity of the Christmas programme. "We could have folded against a very good Chelsea team," he said, "but I was very proud of my players. They just kept going." They may have kept the score under control but Middlesbrough had precious little say in anything else.

Take your pick of the chances that rained in on Middlesbrough. Duff should have scored when Schwarzer spilled Robben's shot at his feet on 36 minutes but lost the ball around his heels. Lampard sent Paulo Ferreira into the area and he narrowly missed. And that was all before half-time.

Joseph-Desiré Job, on as a substitute, could not effect a change and when Lampard stole past Ray Parlour with nine minutes left he was unlucky not to get the goal his performance deserved. Chelsea's point, by then, had been made emphatically.

Chelsea (4-5-1): Cech; Ferreira, Terry, Gallas, Smertin (Johnson, 50); Duff, Cole (Tiago, 62), Lampard, Makelele, Robben; Drogba (Kezman, 79). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Gudjohnsen.

Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Reizeger, Southgate, Cooper, Queudrue; Nemeth (Job, 60), Parlour, Doriva (Morrison, 72), Downing; Zenden; Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Davies, McMahon.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).