New Zealand's rugby union team were not the only all blacks to suffer in London yesterday afternoon. Birmingham City, in unfamiliar black garb, were 3-0 down by half-time and might have lost by six, Eidur Gudjohnsen and the irrepressible Gianfranco Zola both deserving a hat-trick but each missing out. A buoyant Chelsea were happy enough to leap above Manchester United into third place after the sort of performance that suggested they can at last return to the Champions' League next season.
Birmingham, like most promoted teams running on adrenalin thus far, had been generally solid away from home, but on the admission of their manager Steve Bruce were given "a doing". As an old centre-half, he did not find it difficult to pinpoint, or forgive, the principal deficiency: "The basic element of defending let us down." Specifically, the space between the centre of the visitors' defence and the left-back position was as empty as the top tier of Chelsea's West Stand.
Gudjohnsen and Zola steamed into it to such deadly effect that Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's absence went unnoticed. "Fantastic," beamed Claudio Ranieri. "Zola is always the same – our genius. I'm very happy to be in the top three, but the league is very long."
As if the result of the Manchester derby was not sufficient encouragement, his team received the additional bonus of a goal in their first attack. Barely two minutes had been played when they worked the ball out of defence to the left, finding Zola, whose impudent back-heeled flick sent Gudjohnsen past Jeff Kenna for a firm low strike. That early blow required the visitors to come out and attack, which they briefly did to good effect, worrying the home supporters with chances for Paul Devlin and Stern John, whose fearsome 30 yarder might have broken the crossbar had it been a foot lower.
But the Birmingham defence, having kept only one clean sheet all season, looked fragile whenever Chelsea approached, especially with Zola in possession. The little magician waved his wand again after half an hour, taking Emmanuel Petit's pass and finding Gudjohnsen in an identical position to the first goal for the same finish, low and into the far corner of the net. Neither Kenna nor Kenny Cunningham could cope with breaks into that area of their penalty box. Zola was soon in there again, missing this time by a whisker, then foiled by Paul Vaesen's save and finally, four minutes from half-time, driving home Graeme Le Saux's pass with his right foot.
Desperately needing to retrieve one goal before the break, Birmingham missed their opportunity when John headed wide from Olivier Tebily's cross; in the opening minute of the second half he did so again. That was the last of the visitors as an attacking force.
Gudjohnsen should have completed his hat-trick in the 47th minute, jabbing wide when Zola threaded the ball through a needle's eye – or was it an opponent's legs? – for him. When the Icelander miskicked in front of goal, Vaesen cleared only as far as Petit, whose thunderous volley hit the bar. It proved to be Gudjohnsen's last chance to claim the match ball, Ranieri giving him the rest of the afternoon off and putting on the teenage prodigy Carlton Cole, who had scored two goals against Gillingham in midweek.
Apart from one late dash, Birmingham managed to keep him quiet but might have conceded further goals to Jesper Gronkjaer or Mario Melchiot before the final whistle spared them further punishment. Like their neighbours West Bromwich Albion, beaten 2-0 at the Bridge recently, they face a few more batterings before the season is out.
Chelsea 3 Birmingham City 0
Gudjohnsen 3, 31, Zola 42
Half-time: 3-0 Attendance: 35,237