The banner hanging from the Matthew Harding Stand that read "Chelsea Champions 2005" would be better left at home for a little while longer.
The banner hanging from the Matthew Harding Stand that read "Chelsea Champions 2005" would be better left at home for a little while longer. It will be a valid acclamation eventually - probably in two weeks' time at home to Fulham, 50 years to the day after the club's only previous title - but such presumption does not go down well with the football gods. Punishment might have been even more severe; not until eight minutes from the end did Didier Drogba equalise Walter Pandiani's goal.
Jose Mourinho may have been back in his usual seat, with familiar coat and scarf on despite the milky spring sunshine, but the fact that Drogba was one of two half-time substitutes illustrated how concerned he had been about a wretched first-half performance. For once the managerial Midas had failed in the admittedly difficult task of finding a balance between fielding a team to win the game and resting players for a more important one a few days later - in this case, Tuesday's second leg against Bayern Munich.
After using five attacking players in recent matches and being rewarded with 11 goals from the previous three, Mourinho adopted a slightly more conservative approach here, leaving Eidur Gudjohnsen and Drogba in the dug-out with him at the start. The strategy did not work. The first half an hour's football was so inconsequential that both players had to be sent along the touchline to warm up, if only pour encourager les autres, and by the start of the second half they were brought on.
"It was a bad performance in the first half. It looked like a friendly," Mourinho confessed. "Not enough ambition to win the game." Indeed, in the first 30 minutes Chelsea managed two shots on goal. Early on Kenny Cunningham's weak headed clearance allowed Damien Duff to hit a strong drive, which was blocked. Then there was another example of Mourinho's training-ground cuteness - or gamesmanship, take your choice - after Joe Cole had been tripped by Cunningham in a dangerous position just outside the penalty area. Cole stood in front of Damien Johnson, who had been designated to charge down the kick, repeatedly obstructing him, and allowing Frank Lampard a low drive that the goalkeeper Maik Taylor did well to hold.
Mateja Kezman had returned to the side, seeking an improvement on his modest scoring record without success. Tiago and Alexei Smertin were added to the midfield mix and the other one of the four changes, all made with an eye to Tuesday's game, was a rest for Claude Makelele. Smertin, taking the Frenchman's holding role, was substituted at half-time, while Cole, the Barclays' player of the month, was less effective than usual in his new position wide on the right.
Birmingham, who had achieved two gritty goalless draws against Chelsea last season but lost to them 2-0 (in the FA Cup) and 1-0 in this campaign, drew in their horns by replacing the unpredictable Australian winger Stan Lazaridis with Mehdi Nafti, a more defensive midfielder from Tunisia making his second Premiership start. Their manager, Steve Bruce, had urged his club to try and enjoy the occasion, and the supporters did so, regularly chanting "easy, easy", though a certain apprehension set in as chances for the home side began to materialise at last on either side of the interval. The former Chelsea full-back Mario Melchiot offered one of them to his old pals when he was closed down by Tiago, whose low cross from the byline was a whisker in front of the lunging Lampard. Cole also caused a frisson by cutting inside from the right and shooting just past the far post.
Pandiani, the Uruguayan striker, had the visitors' only opportunity of a soporific first half, spinning for a shot that Glen Johnson deflected for a corner. But there was a much better one in the 49th minute, falling to Darren Carter in Lazaridis' position on the left. He hit a volley that forced Petr Cech into a smart save, and Pandiani was just about to knock in the rebound when John Terry threw himself into a crucial blocking tackle. The introduction of Gudjohnsen and Drogba livened up Chelsea, however, and soon each had put a dangerous header just the wrong side of the crossbar.
All this within the first 15 minutes of the half, and then a goal for Birmingham, stemming from Cole's frustration in fouling Emile Heskey and kicking the ball away. The free-kick, moved forward 10 yards, was swung over by Jermaine Pennant and headed back across goal by Matthew Upson as Cech, for once, was guilty of a misjudgment. Pandiani shot from 10 yards, defeating Johnson's frantic attempt to clear off the line.
Mourinho put on Jiri Jarosik for Johnson, going with three men at the back, the equaliser was late in coming. Cole fed a ball in from the left, Lampard turned on it much as he had done against Bayern to such good effect, setting up Drogba for an easy finish. Thus was an embarrassing first home defeat since Arsenal's victory at the Bridge in February 2004 avoided, while Birmingham took a deserved first away point of the year.
"You could say it's a good time to come to Chelsea, but I'm not going to take anything away from my players," said Bruce. Mourinho, meanwhile, was content with a "positive point". And up in the great stand in the sky Matthew Harding was doubtless raising his glass too.