Ivanovic hits the front to punish profligate Rovers
Blackburn Rovers 1 Chelsea 2
Football talks of points being chiselled out, but this was a Mount Rushmore of a victory. Chelsea would have been happy with one. They flew back to London with three.
Branislav Ivanovic's winner may have been so much against the grain of the game that it left splinters but it was superbly executed. Throughout the afternoon, Blackburn's crosses were of a significantly higher quality than the champions' but, under pressure and in mid-turn, Yuri Zhirkov produced a wonderful delivery that found Chelsea's right-back unmarked.
Moments before, Blackburn, who had produced perhaps their finest performance of the season, had been handed an equally inviting opportunity when Jason Roberts was played clean through. As his manager, Sam Allardyce, remarked with the resigned sigh of a man who knows he should have won, everything about the way Roberts created the opening was perfect except for the finish, which went six inches the wrong side of the post.
"It was one of those days when you play as well as you possibly can but we needed to convert chances into goals at the right time," Allardyce reflected. "We got the ultimate kick in the teeth when you don't punish the opposition."
It was a result that might be compared to Manchester United's victory at Stoke last Sunday as a win at one of the Premier League's more forbidding minor venues. However, Blackburn performed far better than Stoke and Chelsea far worse than United had done. Even when Nicolas Anelka equalised, the match refused to run to a predictable pattern, and had Mame Biram Diouf arrived fractionally sooner to meet Morten Gamst Pedersen's low free-kick, Blackburn would have had a second before Roberts squandered his chance.
"It was very difficult to play here and it was important to get a result and stay top," said Chelsea's manager, Carlo Ancelotti, afterwards. "Blackburn put us under pressure; we didn't find the space in the middle of the pitch, although in the second half we took more of a risk on the counterattack."
With Allardyce employing a Diouf on either flank, Chelsea were harried, denied space and opened up continually with some high-class crossing. The sight of Benjani operating asthe lone striker had, however, drawn a metaphorical sigh.
His best days were long ago and far away at Portsmouth, nobody ever quite figured out what he was doing at Manchester City and the hamstring injury that forced him off at half-time showed why Allardyce might have had second thoughts about the deal.
And yet the Zimbabwean still has something about him. It was not just his goal, the way he squeezed between Chelsea's two centre-halves, Alex and John Terry, to head home El-Hadji Diouf's wonderfully precise cross. The breakthrough had been coming; moments earlier, Benjani had thundered through and shot against the goalkeeper's legs.
Petr Cech was at least more in control of that move than he had been when Mame Biram Diouf attempted what appeared an innocuous chip into the Chelsea area. Cech slipped and had to palm the ball away one-handed.
"The thing about Chelsea is that when they are being outplayed, they hang in there and hang in there," said Allardyce.
Zhirkov, who was supposed to be an indulgent buy at the behest of Roman Abramovich, threatened constantly and had a shot brilliantly saved by Paul Robinson, while Anelka was a familiar threat.
Chelsea's equaliser, like their winner, may have looked simple but was beautifully executed. Florent Malouda's long ball was skilfully taken down by Didier Drogba and swept in by Anelka for his 11th goal in 15 appearances against Rovers, to whom he must seem like an avenging angel.
Referee: Peter Walton
Man of the match: Zhirkov
Match rating: 7/10
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