It has been a long time since Goodison Park acclaimed Everton in defeat or their conquerors in triumph yet, even by Chelsea's standard of chiselling victory from their resource of granite self-belief, this was no ordinary day or ordinary result.
"No message," said Jose Mourinho, when asked if magnificent late strikes from Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba constituted a declaration of intent to Manchester United, whom the champions now trail by only two points. But of course, as with so many of the manager's actions and this performance from his team, a sting filled the tail and Mourinho departed another North-west citadel with his title aspirations intact and an ominous verdict for Sir Alex Ferguson.
"This is just one more game off the list and there is now 50 per cent of the Premiership to be played," said the Chelsea manager. "Now we are in a difficult moment but we are not losing many points. We have injuries, no luck and some of our players are not at their best so we are having problems. Last season when Manchester United had problems and Chelsea were perfect, the gap was 12 or 13 points, so by the time Chelsea had their bad moment we were too far ahead. Now, if United have their bad moment, we are only two points behind. We are here."
Chelsea issued conflicting messages yesterday, their three exquisite goals alien to another powerful yet prosaic display and Mourinho lambasting Everton's Andy Johnson for leaping over Henrique Hilario only two months after appealing for 'keepers to be confronted with more care, but his assessment of the title race was that of one who knows he is correct.
The champions entered the 80th minute trailing for the second time, Joseph Yobo's thumping header from a Mikel Arteta corner restoring Everton's lead, but then Lampard unleashed a dipping shot from 20 yards and, six minutes from time, Drogba controlled a flick from the substitute Andrei Shevchenko, spun and smacked an incredible 30-yard volley over Tim Howard. Not only did Howard face the wrath of Everton manager David Moyes for straying too far off his line but his employer at Old Trafford, Ferguson, threatens a second Glaswegian rebuke. "We should have closed both of them down, we know what they can do," said Moyes, "But the quality and technique of all three Chelsea goals was fabulous."
But for three sublime strikes from distance on successive Sundays - Michael Essien's against Arsenal starting an internal competition at Stamford Bridge - and Drogba's late winner against Newcastle, Chelsea would have dropped six points in three outings. As things stand, their position as United's closest challengers has improved dramatically. They are displaying the tenacity of champions, laced with occasional brilliance, not the brilliance of champions laced with occasional tenacity. "Sometimes you go to the pitch, the flowers are out, the sky is blue and you play great football and score great goals," said Mourinho. "But if you can't play great music you should at least play some music."
Harmony took its leave in the 16th minute when Johnson pursued a careless header from Ricardo Carvalho, was shoved in the back by Khalid Boulahrouz - a replacement for the injured John Terry - and jumped over Hilario, having touched the ball beyond him. No penalty and no convincing case for a dive, a stance taken by the referee Mark Halsey and Moyes. Yet Mourinho raged along the touchline in protest at the refusal to show the Everton striker a yellow card. "In the country where I come from they would call him an intelligent player," the Chelsea manager said. "Here, in a different culture, you use other words that are more critical. I am proud to be part of this culture now, and am influenced by this culture, so for me he is a dangerous player."
Mindful of Mourinho's protest when he lost Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini to head injuries at Reading, Everton's manager said: "Andy jumped out of the way of the 'keeper, got straight back up and did not appeal for a penalty. A few weeks ago we didn't want players to jump into keepers, now we are criticising them for jumping out of the way. Make your mind up."
Everton were awarded a penalty in the 38th minute when 18-year-old Victor Anichebe, making his first league start ahead of the dropped James Beattie, ran on to Johnson's pass and was hauled to the floor by Boulahrouz. Arteta sent Hilario the wrong way. Michael Ballack equalised moments after the restart when his powerful free-kick deflected in off the back of Howard, and though Yobo restored Everton's lead they were helpless to stop Lampard and Drogba's strikes.
"Too late" cried an emotional Evertonian as Moyes injected fresh legs with his team behind. For Chelsea, however, it never is.
Goals: Arteta pen (38) 1-0; Howard og (48) 1-1; Yobo (63) 2-1; Lampard (80) 2-2; Drogba (86) 2-3.
Everton (4-3-1-2): Howard; Neville, Yobo, Stubbs, Lescott; Davies, Carsley (Beattie, 90), Arteta; Osman; Johnson, Anichebe (McFadden, 90). Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Naysmith, Weir.
Chelsea (4-1-3-2): Hilario; Geremi (Kalou, h-t), Boulahrouz (Bridge, 72), Carvalho, A Cole; Makelele; Essien, Ballack, Lampard; Drogba, Robben (Shevchenko, 72). Substitutes not used: Hedman (gk), Ferreira.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Everton Neville; Chelsea Carvalho.
Man of the match: Drogba.
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