Chasing down the leaders is one thing but, as Jose Mourinho found out once again tonight, trying to leave the rest behind at the top of the Premier League, in this intriguing unpredictable season, is quite another.
They have conquered Manchester City and made a virtue of being the team that has come good late on, but tonight they looked bereft of the killer instinct that served them so well in recent weeks. The old problems came back to haunt Mourinho: the absence of a striker capable of putting opposition away, a critical defensive lapse as they tried to see out victory.
It was not the sleek, bespoke performances that Mourinho’s team turned out to beat City. Instead he was forced to throw on the inexperienced Mohamed Salah at the end to chase the lead having previously adjusted his team to close the game down. Chelsea’s goal came from Branislav Ivanovic and it looked like it might be enough to win the match until substitute Victor Anichebe struck within the last four minutes of normal time.
It is a different Mourinho these days, to the one that considered each and every defeat as evidence that the universe was out of kilter and forces were conspiring against him. Afterwards he blamed his team’s “lack of personality” in allowing themselves to be dominated by an otherwise fairly nascent West Brom team in the closing stages of the match.
“A ‘ready’ team [ie, an experienced team], a complete team kills this game,” Mourinho said. “Two-nil. Goodbye. We didn’t.” He is playing that tune again, the one that says Chelsea are not yet at a stage where they can win the title, and this he claimed was vindication for that theory. He was right in saying that his side fell away badly, but why that was the case was not obvious.
Chelsea are still top but a win for Arsenal against Manchester United tomorrow will restore them to that position and Manchester City can also overhaul them if they beat Sunderland. Having dominated the first half, Chelsea struggled to put West Brom away and found themselves on the back foot. They needed a telling moment from Eden Hazard or Oscar or Samuel Eto’o but none was forthcoming. Instead there was a strange row between Ivanovic and Petr Cech and then, eventually, the equaliser from Anichebe.
He had been sent on by Pepe Mel to try to give some life to a West Brom attack that looked like it might be flat-lining by the beginning of the second half. His team had done their defensive work well and then they conceded in injury-time at the end of the first half with sloppy marking from a corner.
It does not change the fact that Mel is still yet to win any of his five games in charge of West Brom since taking over, but this comeback was a great improvement on what might have been after a moribund first half. He declared himself “proud” of his players after the game and they are off for a break in Spain which their new manager described as his “pre-season.”
In a drab and unremarkable first half in which Chelsea failed to spark, only Willian, of Mourinho’s attacking four, really delivered and his contribution was more about the running and energy than creativeness.
It was a dreadful goal that West Brom conceded from Willian’s corner on the right. David Luiz angled his run to the front post and flicked the ball on to no-one in particular with his left foot. Breaking from a position around the penalty spot, Ivanovic was completely unmarked – Gareth McAuley’s fault - when he struck the ball on the half-volley past Ben Foster from close range.
In pictures: Tuesday night's Premier League action
In pictures: Tuesday night's Premier League action
1/11 West Brom 1 Chelsea 1
Branislav Ivanovic celebrates with Gary Cahill after putting Chelsea in front
2/11 West Brom 1 Chelsea 1
Willian of Chelsea is tackled by West Brom's Steven Reid
3/11 West Brom 1 Chelsea 1
West Brom's Victor Anichebe heads past Petr Cech to deny Chelsea the three points
4/11 West Brom 1 Chelsea 1
Fernando Torres clashes with Ben Foster
5/11 West Brom 1 Chelsea 1
Referee Anthony Taylor has words with Fernando Torres as Ben Foster lies on the pitch
6/11 West Ham 2 Norwich 0
Leroy Fer (centre) and George McCartney collide into Matthew Taylor as he heads the ball
7/11 West Ham 2 Norwich 0
Mohamed Diame of scores the Hammers' second goal
8/11 Cardiff 0 Aston Villa 0
Fraizer Campbell causes an awkward moment for Villa keeper Brad Guzan
9/11 Cardiff 0 Aston Villa 0
Cardiff's David Marshall makes a last minute save from Andreas Weimann
10/11 Hull 0 Southampton 1
José Fonte (middle in red) watches as his effort creeps over the line
11/11 Hull 0 Southampton 1
Southampton players join Jose Fonte (centre right) to celebrate his winner
Until then it had been Chelsea who had the better of it. But not by much. Hazard was well-marshalled on the left wing, although doing so earned Morgan Amalfitano a booking late in the first half. Really, Mourinho’s team were reduced to a few long range shots, the best from Willian, and one clever turn by Eto’o that left Craig Dawson on his backside. Claudio Yacob got in the way of the cut-back.
Yacob and James Morrison shielded the West Brom defence from the usual Chelsea pressure and by and large they did a good job of it. Albion’s problem was creating anything of note at the other end. Only once in the first half did they really get clear, when Amalfitano deceived Cesar Apilicueta down the right and crossed for Saido Berahino to head the ball down. Thievy Bifouma’s instinct to take his first touch away from goal felt wrong and Chris Brunt’s shot was wide.
Even without John Terry in the side, it required something of quality to breakdown the Gary Cahill and Luiz partnership and, in the first half, the home side did not get close to that. It took well into the second half for West Brom to get their first shot on target. They lost Yacob to injury and in the early stages of the second half there was no clear idea of how they might get back in it.
It was Thievy who had the first decent chance with around 15 minutes left as West Brom finally managed to apply some pressure. The ball dropped to him in the area in the right channel from a Brunt corner that was flicked on but the striker, on loan from Espanyol, snatched at the ball and dragged it across goal. Brunt did little better minutes later with a chance from the other side.
All they had in their favour was that Chelsea seemed incapable of putting the game away. Hazard dallied on a break down the left side of the West Brom box and failed to anticipate Ramires’ run into the six yard box. With 12 minutes remaining, Mourinho withdrew Oscar and replaced him with John Obi Mikel, making clear his intentions to shut the game down.
Before then he had given Fernando Torres his first run out, as a substitute for Eto’o, since the Spanish striker’s knee ligament injury against Manchester United on 19 January. Mel refreshed his attack with Anichebe and Matej Vydra. West Brom looked at their most dangerous from set-pieces and the more the pressure grew, the more of those they won.
In the build-up to the equaliser, Cahill was injured and had only just hobbled back onto the pitch when Berahino picked up the ball on the left side and angled a ball into the near side of the box. Having dealt with the pressure time and again in the second half, on this occasion Cech came for the ball and hesitated. Luiz allowed Anichebe to get in front of him and the striker angled a fine header past the Cech.
Having originally intended to bring on Frank Lampard and go further into shutdown mode, Mourinho changed his mind and called upon Salah to try to turn the game which had finally opened up. There was a late corner for Chelsea that should never have been given when replays showed that Ben Foster had managed to keep the ball in play. But not for the first time, Chelsea found themselves unable to craft an attempt on goal.
West Bromwich Albion (4-2-3-1): Foster; Reid, McAuley, Dawson, Ridgewell; Yacob (Mulumbu 63), Morrison; Amalfitano (Anichebe 73), Thievy (Vydra 77), Brunt; Berahino.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta; Ramires (Salah 88), Matic; Willian, Oscar (Mikel 78), Hazard; Eto'o (Torres 69).
Match rating 6/10.
Man of the match Willian.
Referee A Taylor.