There was a chant of "Chelsea are back" here yesterday, and if that overstates what has gone on at Stamford Bridge these past few weeks, you could understand the underlying sentiment. In Henk Ten Cate's first game as assistant manager, Chelsea won with comfort and style at a ground where they lost last season and the one before that.
Didier Drogba is back too. He may not have gone away, and may have no intention to – who knows, given the way he blows? – but his cool eighth-minute goal settled any nerves Chelsea may have felt about their return to Teesside, particularly without John Terry and Ashley Cole. At the end, Drogba ran to the Chelsea following and kissed his shirt before throwing it to them.
It was a predictably flowery gesture but Drogba's new manager, Avram Grant, appreciated his centre-forward's efforts. "He is not a problematic guy," Grant said of Drogba. "A player speaks on the pitch. When he speaks with me he's very positive.
"I didn't see one player who wasn't 100 per cent committed. You saw full commitment today, especially from Didier."
Admittedly against a fragile Middlesbrough who have one point from their last 15 and who do not look too good enough to avoid a struggle of a season, Chelsea were untroubled for large sections of a surprisingly quiet affair.
But, also quietly, Chelsea are beginning to flow; this was a third consecutive away win, and Grant pointed out that five of his six matches in charge have been away from home. Manchester City now visit west London next Saturday, and that will be a test of the team's stability and their improved rhythm.
"It was very important to win," said Grant, "especially as we lost here in the last two years. Second, our game is getting better, more quality."
There then followed a gentle dig at the previous management of Jose Mourinho: "Of course you have to win games but the way you win is important, not like it was before. Today football is about entertainment. I have an obligation, this is the right way."
Chelsea were far from exhilarating – they did not need to be – but the victory was sealed with a blockbuster of a second goal. It came from Alex, preferred to Tal Ben Haim at centre-half, 12 minutes into the second half: a magnificent, smooth, rising 35-yard strike that soared beyond the blameless Mark Schwarzer.
There were 33 minutes remaining yet Middlesbrough did not produce one shot on target. "Very flat," was their manager Gareth Southgate's assessment, "and at home that's more than disappointing.
"We didn't get out of the blocks at all - that's the fourth game in a row where we've conceded in the first 10 minutes."
Until Chelsea scored, and during the move to the goal, Middlesbrough barely had a kick. They were yards off the pace, and the difference in confidence and class was illustrated by the ease of Drogba's give-and-go with Frank Lampard. Chris Riggott was removed from the game by that and Drogba was then one on one with Schwarzer. With a shuffle of his blue boots Drogbamanoeuvred the ball from under his feet to slide it slowly past the advancing Australian.
It was all too easy from Chelsea's perspective. Only Gary O'Neil, asked to float behind Mido, was offering anything like the required resistance from Middlesbrough, and when he moved out to the right wing in the 17th minute he showed the others the sort of urgency that was needed.
Skipping by Paulo Ferreira, O'Neil delivered an excellent fast cross. Mido, no doubt welcoming some sort of supply, got a useful flicked header in but Petr Cech reacted with typical agility to palm the ball away. The action brought some belated applause from the home support – though again there were swathes of empty red seats at the Riverside.
A couple of minutes into the second half Mido rose again to meet a cross, this time from Stewart Downing, but Cech was in the right place again and once Alex had intervened so spectacularly, the contest ebbed away.
It is a phrase which may apply to an already anxious Middlesbrough. For them it is a trip to Manchester United next.Reuse content