The case to include the Netherlands international defender Khalid Boulahrouz grows stronger by the day. However, if Jose Mourinho's decision to name his latest signing on the bench against Middlesbrough last night was meant to invigorate a back four which was rarely tested against Manchester City three days earlier, then as a tactic it was not one of the Portuguese manager's most inspired.
The mere presence of the man they call "The Cannibal" appeared to eat into the minds of John Terry and his hesitant colleagues from the moment Aiyegbeni Yakubu was allowed the freedom of goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini's penalty area in the 12th minute.
The Nigerian's profligacy, coupled with Andrei Shevchenko's first Premiership goal for his new employers, somewhat masked Chelsea's shortcomings and preceded a period of possession football from the overconfident Londoners. However, Yakubu would go on to spurn a similarly inviting aerial opportunity 20 minutes after half-time and it was more lax marking which allowed Emanuel Pogatetz to head home Middlesbrough's equaliser 10 minutes from time.
In the aftermath of the champions' second successive League defeat at the Riverside, Mourinho apportioned collective blame and shed little light on whether a decidedly nervous defensive display would accelerate Boulahrouz's debut. However, it seems certain that the imposing centre-half will replace the disinterested Ricardo Carvalho at Ewood Park on Sunday.
"I don't think it was a problem with the defence," Mourinho said. "Overall the team didn't play well enough and there are no excuses. For me it was our attitude and overall their attitude was much stronger than ours.
"I cannot blame the referee, the opposition or bad luck. That's why I'm disappointed. It was a match which we didn't deserve to win, but I think we were a bit unlucky to lose the game."
Shevchenko's close-range finish, from Wayne Bridge's measured cross, allowed Chelsea to nullify a bright start from Middlesbrough on the night the home club celebrated the 20th anniversary of their rebirth after escaping liquidation.
A goal to the good, the Blues dominated with the returning Claude Makelele an immovable force in his first outing since the World Cup final. However, it was much to Mourinho's disappointment that Chelsea failed to develop a position of territorial advantage into three precious Premiership points.
"The game was easy for us to win," he added. "We were winning 1-0, the opposition was not particularly good, it was easy to have the ball and there was space. The pitch was fantastic and we were able to play our passing game."
For the Middlesbrough manager, Gareth Southgate, a stirring second-half display could be a coming-of-age performance for an ambitious, if inexperienced coach. The former England centre-half made two astute substitutions after the break and did not allow an opening-day defeat against top-flight newcomers Reading to affect his ultimately successful game plan.
Mark Viduka, a 72nd-minute replacement for Gaizka Mendieta, followed up Pogatetz's equaliser with a deflected winner in the final minute of normal time and Southgate said: "I think his contribution epitomised our attitude. It was first class. I had to tell Mark that I was leaving him out before the game and he took it very well. I always knew we had options on the bench, but I thought Yakubu looked a threat all night.
"To come from a goal down against a side of Chelsea's quality showed terrific character," added Southgate, who confirmed Middlesbrough are considering re-signing defender Abel Xavier when his ban for failing a drugs test ends in October. "I am very relieved to have won my first game as manager and very proud of my players."
Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Davies (Cattermole, 61), Riggott, Pogatetz, Taylor; Parnaby, Mendieta (Viduka, 72), Boateng, Rochemback, Downing; Yakubu. Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Morrison, McMahon.
Chelsea (4-1-3-2): Cudicini; Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry, Bridge; Makelele (Wright-Phillips, 84); Essien, Lampard, Kalou; Drogba, Shevchenko. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Boulahrouz, Mikel, Diarra.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).Reuse content