Lampard cuts loose and sends Chelsea top

Chelsea 3 Birmingham City 0
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The Independent Football

January was supposed to be a troublesome time for Chelsea with the absence of four key players at the Africa Cup of Nations but instead it has proved to be the perfect month for Carlo Ancelotti's side.

A dismissive victory over Birmingham City last night gave the Blues of London four wins out of four in 2010, and put them back on top of the Premier League table, one point ahead of Manchester United with a game in hand. The club have also refrained from signing any new players, which means Ancelotti will not have to come good on his promise to run naked around the club's training ground if any new players arrive. The only streak at Chelsea is a winning one.

A header from Florent Malouda and two strikes by Frank Lampard were enough to end Birmingham's remarkable run of 15 games unbeaten, which had stretched back to October.

Lampard took his tally to five goals from the four games since Ancelotti tinkered with his formation to accommodate the loss of Didier Drogba. Freed from his role on the left of a midfield diamond, Lampard has recaptured his form thanks to Ancelotti's decision to give the side greater width, in the form of Malouda and Joe Cole.

This was the Lampard of old, the man who has scored 143 goals for the club. With Malouda and Joe Cole rampaging down the flanks, the space has opened up for Lampard to take centre stage again. His two goals were vintage strikes from the edge of the area, his first teed up by Michael Ballack and the second following a pass by Malouda. One with his left, the other with his right. Lampard's rediscovered touch is good news for Fabio Capello, the England manager, in World Cup year; not so good for Chelsea's title rivals.

Chelsea's free-flowing style in the past month, which produced 17 goals in four games, has convinced Ancelotti not to change his formation when Drogba returns to the side for Saturday's trip to Burnley. "We need to have Drogba because he's a fantastic player and, with him, we can play the same football," Ancelotti said. "Our philosophy and aims won't change: to play good football and win. We'll maintain the same system."

A key part of that system was Deco, reinvented as the holding midfielder. Deco looks set to have a decisive role in the coming month, as Michael Essien is to have an operation in Paris tomorrow on a torn meniscus in his left knee and is unlikely to return before March. Deco may lack defensive stature but here he more than made up for it with his ability to maintain the pace of Chelsea's relentless attacks.

Joe Cole and Malouda also flourished against Birmingham, combining in the fifth minute to set Chelsea on their way with a goal of elegant simplicity. Cole dodged past Lee Bowyer down the right wing and lofted a cross to the goalmouth where Malouda rose to head in from three yards. Chelsea battered Birmingham for the majority of the game, hitting the post with a Ricardo Carvalho header before Lampard scored from Michael Ballack's pass in the 32nd minute.

Birmingham rallied late and James McFadden should have scored after 71 minutes, pulling his shot wide. In the dying moments Chelsea tore into Birmingham for a third goal. Deco found Malouda and the Frenchman moved the ball on to Lampard, who swung his left boot to complete another impressive victory.

Chelsea (4-3-2-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Ballack, Deco, Lampard; J Cole (Zhirkov, 81), Malouda; Anelka (Sturridge, 88). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Ferreira, Matic, Alex, Borini.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Hart; Carr, R Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson, Ferguson, Bowyer, McFadden (Michel, 72); Benitez (Fahey, 56), Jerome. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), McSheffrey, Queudrue, D Johnson, Vignal.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Man of the match: Deco.

Attendance: 41,293.