Everton, by general consent, have become harder to beat (which is just as well after finishing 17th last season) but, hard as it was, Chelsea got there in the end yesterday. The highly skilled Arjen Robben, a £12m signing from PSV Eindhoven last summer, scored his second fine goal of the week to earn a victory that was deserved, but could easily have slipped away. Tim Cahill and Alan Stubbs both missed with clear headers, so the visitors slipped to their first away defeat of an unexpectedly successful season.
Had they held on, Jose Mourinho might have repeated his taunt to Tottenham two months ago about the visitors having parked their bus in front of the goal. Instead he was able to praise Everton for their dogged defensive resistance and enjoy topping the Premiership table for the first time.
"It looked like a dressing-room after a Cup final," Mourinho said, so excited were his players at the end of a week in which they also qualified for the Champions' League knock-out stage with two games to spare. "At half-time I told the players we have to live with the pressure of wanting to be champions and play risky football." After Ruud Gullit's sexy football, risky football.
Mourinho lived up to his word by sending on a fourth forward midway through the second half as Everton clung on, and he was rewarded when three of the four combined for the winning goal.
Paulo Ferreira began the move right down by his own corner-flag, hoisting the ball upfield for the substitute Mateja Kezman to head down. Eidur Gudjohnsen played it forward and Robben's pace and strength took him clear of the final defender before he lifted a deft chip over the flailing Nigel Martyn in goal.
David Moyes' team have thrived on his essentially negative 4-5-1 formation, which tends to work better in swift counter-attacks away from home than when trying to break down defences at Goodison where all three wins have been by a single goal. His team pack midfield and try to utilise the pace of Marcus Bent, an inspired £450,000 signing from Ipswich last summer to replace Tomasz Radzinski, whose move to Fulham earned Bill Kenwright's hard-up regime three times as much. Compare that, however, to £12m for Robben. "If you can't buy Armani, you buy Marks and Spencer," Moyes said ruefully.
What is vital, however, is to support Bent, the M & S man, and too often Everton failed to do so. The system that Chelsea have settled into, incorporating two wingers in Damien Duff and Robben, also helped the London side yesterday, in that they were never outnumbered in midfield, where Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard and Tiago formed a compact trio between the two wide men.
Neither Duff nor Robben felt compelled to hug the touchline, and the most exciting moment of the first hour came when the Dutchman burst through the centre, lobbing the ball over a bemused David Weir and hitting a dipping shot as it bounced up, which Martyn nudged on to the bar.
Lampard, as expected, was the principal attacking midfielder, having an early shot deflected wide by Alessandro Pistone, the defender recovering well after slipping on the greasy pitch and presenting him with the chance.
Nearer the interval, Lampard shot over the bar from 20 yards and Martyn, initially unsighted, did well to parry Duff's curler from the corner of the penalty area, Tony Hibbert hacking away for one of the home side's 14 corners.
Kevin Kilbane's crossing from the left offered the visitors their greatest hope and ought to have brought them the lead in the 17th minute. Cahill was far enough forward this time to meet the centre with a firm header but Petr Cech dived to his left for an excellent save.
The second of their four chances during the 90 minutes was an even better one, Leon Osman picking up a short corner completely unmarked and chipping perfectly for Stubbs to head wide of Cech's left-hand post.
Otherwise the flow of the game was much as before. Bent, back in his own six-yard area for another corner, cleared Ricardo Carvalho's header, Hibbert did well to keep pace with the flying Robben on a quick break, and after Ferreira broke strongly to the byline and pulled back an inviting pass, his compatriot Tiago hammered it into the top tier of the Shed End. It was virtually his last touch, Mourinho boldly replacing him with Kezman.
Gudjohnsen, playing just behind the new arrival, wasted the best chance to date with 20 minutes to play, only to make amends by setting up the goal a minute later. First he shot too high as John Terry nodded down Robben's cross to him six yards out. But with the groans still echoing round the ground Chelsea built up again and Robben's finish set up a sixth successive victory.
It might still have been snatched away. For the second time, Cahill had a header saved by Cech, before Bent was at last given some help up front, in the form of Kevin Campbell and then James McFadden. Campbell had one half-chance, which he headed wide from Bent's chip.
Mourinho's response was to send on Géremi and Robert Huth to hold on to what he had. When asked to compare the two championship contenders, Moyes replied: "Arsenal at the start of the season [beating Everton 4-1] were frightening." They do not frighten Mourinho's Armani men.Reuse content