Misfiring Drogba hits winner as Chelsea go 11 points clear

Chelsea 1 - West Bromwich Albion 0
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The Independent Football

Jose Mourinho will consider this one of his side's more incomplete performances but the consequences of victory over West Bromwich Albion could hardly be more stark. Chelsea lead the Premiership by 11 points and they could afford a performance of reckless profligacy from the striker Didier Drogba, whose single goal was a poor return on a rich collection of opportunities.

Jose Mourinho will consider this one of his side's more incomplete performances but the consequences of victory over West Bromwich Albion could hardly be more stark. Chelsea lead the Premiership by 11 points and they could afford a performance of reckless profligacy from the striker Didier Drogba, whose single goal was a poor return on a rich collection of opportunities.

A week after they shredded the Barcelona defence, Chelsea did much the same to a side who scarcely bare comparison with the last visitors to Stamford Bridge, but without the same devastating results.

Drogba was presented with more opportunities to put this game beyond reach than he will care to remember but, in contradiction to the natural laws of Premiership football, West Brom stayed in contention to the very end.

When Bryan Robson implemented a 4-3-3 formation last night, it was tempting to think that he was risking annihilation. There was no Arjen Robben in the Chelsea squad, his return from two broken bones in his foot will have to wait, but there was much to concern Robson.

In particular Joe Cole, whose seven consecutive starts, his best run of the season, have been earned in Robben's absence. The England international has flourished on the right wing, he distinguished himself against Barcelona last week, and he was at the heart of many of Chelsea's best early attacks. A ball hit low across the West Brom area on 13 minutes needed only the most basic of touches to turn it home.

Robert Huth returned in the centre of defence for Chelsea, his first match since 30 January, and, even against an ambitious attack of Kevin Campbell, Geoff Horsfield and Kanu, the home side achieved an easy kind of dominance. On loan from Manchester United, Kieran Richardson was the away side's most steady source of resistance in the centre of midfield but Damien Duff's mastery of full-back Martin Albrechtsen down Chelsea's left proved too much for West Brom.

The Irish winger cut a shot just wide of the post from John Terry's knock-down on the edge of the area - a touch from Drogba would have been decisive. The Chelsea striker wasted one more opportunity to open the scoring on 23 minutes when he could not lift a lob over goalkeeper Russell Hoult and then Chelsea broke through with less than 20 minutes of the half to play.

Frank Lampard slipped a ball past Albrechtsen and, as the full-back turned to chase, Duff sprinted past his left shoulder to gather the pass and cross for Drogba in the centre. Drogba finally managed to score.

What Robben will add to this side when he returns on Saturday against Crystal Palace will be enough to wilt the confidence of Chelsea's vain pursuers because, even without him, their service to Drogba was lavish in the extreme. He was presented with another Cole through ball on 34 minutes and, although he beat Hoult, was guided wide of the goal by Zoltan Gera's intervention.

It took Mourinho 74 minutes to decide that he would switch his team to a defensive aspect and in replacing Eidur Gudjohnsen with Jiri Jarosik, the Chelsea coach signalled that he was satisfied with a one-goal victory. The introduction of the functional Czech midfielder is always the surest sign that Mourinho has decided to consolidate victory although that was not to say that his side did not have a chance to extend their lead.

Drogba will look back on last night as a chance to have scored four. Lampard's through ball that found him on 62 minutes allowed the striker to turn Thomas Gaardsoe but, with Hoult advancing, he could only sweep the ball wide.

With a more ruthless finisher in their attack, Chelsea would have shattered what remained of West Bromwich's confidence but even with their visitors fully stretched they failed to close the game out.

A cross from the left from Cole on 71 minutes was headed wide by Drogba without a challenger in sight and he was equally careless when Duff cut the ball back to him with nine minutes remaining.

Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ferreira, Huth, Terry, Gallas; Makelele; Cole (Kezman, 86), Lampard, Gudjohnsen (Jarosik, 74), Duff (Smertin, 90); Drogba. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Carvalho.

West Bromwich Albion (4-3-3): Hoult; Albrechtsen, Gaardsoe, Clement, Robinson; Gera, Wallwork, Richardson (Greening 87); Campbell, Kanu, Horsfield (Earnshaw 83). Substitutes not used: Kuszcak (gk), Scimeca, Moore.

Referee: N Barry (Lincolnshire).

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