Linesman lets Chelsea off hook

Birmingham City 0 Chelsea 0
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The Independent Football

The good news for Chelsea is that Didier Drogba is staying to play Fulham tomorrow before heading off to the African Nations Cup. The bad news is that this match underlined how much they need him.

The club's top scorer was relatively quiet by his standards, the closest he came to his 19th of the season was a volley which fizzed just wide, but his team-mates wasted a series of chances, and not just because of Joe Hart's inspired performance in the Birmingham goal. Chelsea thus failed to score for the first time since playing Barcelona in the Nou Camp in April, 34 matches ago.

Fortunately for Carlo Ancelotti a linesman's errant flag, which ruled out what would have been Christian Benitez's first home goal, meant Birmingham also drew a blank. But though Chelsea avoided defeat they have now won only one match in seven. It is an untimely slump. Drogba, and Salomon Kalou, will still be heading to passport control this week, as are Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel. Chelsea will also be without the injured Nicolas Anelka tomorrow, and Florent Malouda, suspended after being dismissed late on at St Andrew's.

"We are disappointed, but we improved compared to our last game against West Ham," said Ancelotti. "I think we played well and had a lot of chances but Hart made fantastic saves. It is not our best moment but I do not see big problems. At the halfway point in the season we are top, this is good for us. We are now losing players with good qualities but we have a very good squad and will find other solutions."

What they will be is not immediately clear. Ancelotti made four changes from the XI which scrambled a draw at West Ham, among them the deployment of Malouda in the hole, and a first league start for Daniel Sturridge. Aside from a snap-shot superbly saved by Hart, the youngster – playing against the club at which his father, Michael, had been on the books without ever making an appearance – was quiet.

Malouda was no more effective, and after an hour he swapped positions with Frank Lampard. Then, after a shocking miss following some clever work by Kalou, he incurred a second yellow card for a clumsy challenge on Stephen Carr.

While Ancelotti shuffled his pack, Birmingham's manager, Alex McLeish, fielded the same XI for the seventh successive fixture, hardly surprising given the previous six brought five wins and a draw. After giving Chelsea a first-minute scare, Cameron Jerome shooting over, Birmingham got bodies behind the ball as Chelsea passed around them. Chances, inevitably, were created. After Branislav Ivanovic headed over and Drogba volleyed wide Hart went full length to deny Sturridge then blocked Lampard's point-blank shot after the England midfielder, to his surprise, beat the offside trap.

Three minutes later a flag was raised, but wrongly, as Benitez touched in Liam Ridgewell's low cross after Scott Dann headed on Carr's cross. The linesman's only excuse was that Drogba, playing Benitez onside, was lying prone. McLeish's response was sanguine, and admirable. "He's definitely onside, but we got a break last week against Everton [a Louis Saha goal wrongly chalked off] and it went against us today. I've no problem with the officials. They have the toughest job in the game."

Thereafter, though City sought to attack, it was Chelsea against Hart, assisted by the bar which Alex rattled with a 35-yard free-kick. Hart denied Juliano Belletti, Kalou and Lampard (excellent in the hole, before being replaced by Joe Cole), and withstood an accidental raking by Kalou. "Joe was brave and took charge of the situation, he'll have a sore head but be OK," said McLeish, adding: "His form's been terrific. I know the England staff think a lot of him." City are now 10 matches unbeaten. McLeish said: "Can I believe it? I can, but it is a fantastic run."

Attendance: 28,958

Referee: Peter Walton

Man of the match: Hart

Match rating: 7/10