For a match which simply had to be won, for the sake of Chelsea's fading championship prospects and his own job security, Claudio Ranieri yesterday resorted to a starting XI containing nine players who were at Stamford Bridge before anyone there ever heard of Roman Abramovich. "Old" Chelsea did not let their manager down, even if the margin of defeat was harsh on Leicester.
Chelsea remain third from top, having restored the difference between themselves and Arsenal to four points, while Leicester stay third from bottom, three points adrift of Portsmouth.
By half-time, when the visitors led 2-0 through a sumptuous piece of finishing from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and an unwitting own goal by Nikos Dabizas, the chasm in quality between the sides was as one would expect when one club has spent £111m on players and their opponents next to nothing.
The only question was whether Ranieri's team would seek further goals or sit on their lead. If they appeared to take the latter option, it was probably because Leicester were more competitive in the second half. Still trailing 2-0 with a quarter of an hour left, they then carved out three chances. But Chelsea, with John Terry in indomitable mood, put a flattering sheen on the scoreline in the final three minutes through Adrian Mutu's first goal in 14 games and Celestine Babayaro.
Ranieri claimed he had rested rather than dropped the post-Abramovich signings Glen Johnson and Wayne Bridge after Chelsea dropped 11 points out of the previous 18 available. "My squad is like a close-knit family and we've proved today that we stick together when things aren't going well," he said. "We played poorly at Charlton and at Watford in the FA Cup but we were OK against Liverpool, even though we lost.
"It was important to win and win well. We needed to retake our confidence. I think we showed character and skill. Hasselbaink and [Eidur] Gudjohnsen linked well up front - they know each other's play very well - but there was important link play too by Joe Cole."
Micky Adams, the Leicester manager, may have little in common with Ranieri in terms of resources, yet he put aside his frustration to express solidarity with his opposite number in the wake of ongoing speculation that Sven Goran Eriksson will move in at Chelsea sooner or later. "I've been in the same situation as Claudio when Mohamed Al Fayed took over at Fulham," he said. "Every day people were being linked with my job, and I can tell you it does wear you down."
Adams conceded that Leicester, missing the industry and set-piece prowess of the injured Muzzy Izzet, were poor in the first half. Chelsea swarmed towards Ian Walker's goal like men with a mission, their touch play and movement bringing them a 12th-minute lead.
Gudjohnsen, on the right wing, began the move by finding Mario Melchiot, who sent Cole haring towards the byline. As Dabizas lunged for the ball at the near post, Hasselbaink met it with an dazzling flick of the back foot, his first League goal since October evoking comparisons with one that Gianfranco Zola scored for Chelsea against Norwich.
A trifle richly, Hasselbaink claimed the second goal, too, which would have put him on a hat-trick as well as on 99 Premiership goals. Whether the Dutchman's 44th-minute free-kick would have entered the net unaided we shall never know, the ball striking Dabizas' head to take a dramatic change of direction and leave Walker wrong-footed.
Leicester, while not so horribly outclassed thereafter, did not test Carlo Cudicini until he tipped over a booming effort by Callum Davidson in the 75th minute. Chelsea briefly looked vulnerable, Terry clearing Jamie Scowcroft's header off the line and Paul Dickov dragging a shot wide.
Ranieri shrewdly sent on William Gallas to counter Leicester's aerial threat and, with Frank Lampard working tirelessly in midfield, Chelsea reasserted their ascendancy. Mutu, a £15.8m substitute, put the result beyond any lingering doubt by advancing, unchallenged, before curling a shot beyond Walker from 22 yards.
In stoppage time, Babayaro pounced on Paul Brooker's wretchedly under-hit back-pass before beating Walker on his near post. "Chelsea are back," their followers roared, but Ranieri continues to tread a tightrope between the must-win match and the no-win situation.
Goals: Hasselbaink (12) 0-1; Dabizas og (44) 0-2; Mutu (88) 0-3; Babayaro (90) 0-4.
Leicester City (4-4-2): Walker 5; Impey 3, Dabizas 6, Howey 5, Davidson 5; Scowcroft 5, Nallis 2 (Brooker 3, 69), McKinlay 6 (Hignett, 82), Stewart 3; Bent 6 (Ferdinand 3, 69), Dickov 4. Substitutes not used: Coyne (gk), Heath.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini 6; Melchiot 8, Terry 8, Desailly 6, Babayaro 6; Gronkjaer 6 (Geremi 6, 65), Lampard 8, Makelele 4, Cole 7 (Gallas, 78); Gudjohnsen 7 (Muti 6, 74), Hasselbaink 6. Substitutes not used: Sullivan (gk), Huth.
Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield) 7.
Booking: Chelsea: Hasselbaink.
Man of the match: Terry.
Attendance: 31,547.Reuse content