There are still five months of the Premiership title race left but last night you might have thought we were already into the madness of May. Only Didier Drogba saved Chelsea as they grasp the coat-tails of Manchester United - the Premiership champions are clinging on but they are not finding the pace of the race easy.
The gap between Jose Mourinho's side in second place and Manchester United was trimmed to five points as they won their game in hand with only 16 minutes to spare and the nerves in Stamford Bridge shredded. Sir Alex Ferguson would not have been able to watch this game live on television but the bare facts will tell him that, three days after Chelsea drew with Arsenal, they were run perilously close again.
A night of brave decisions started with Mourinho relegating Andrei Shevchenko, Drogba and Claude Makelele to the bench and ended with all three on the pitch and, for a while at least, the diminutive Frenchman at centre-half. It got that desperate as he switched to 4-2-4 in pursuit of a winner against a Newcastle team who began the night with 13 injuries to first team players.
Shevchenko's night was suitably bizarre for a man whose season seems to be disintegrating. He began it on the bench and ended up claiming the assist for Drogba's winning goal. The problem was that his pass to Drogba was in fact a miscued shot.
"A scruffy goal," mused Glenn Roeder. "Shay Given might have saved it from that angle but then a player of Shevchenko's quality scuffs his shot and it goes to the one player who doesn't miss from six yards out."
If the Newcastle manager had seen more of Shevchenko this season, he might not have been so surprised at the mistake, but the £31m man was not the only famous name having a bad night. Michael Ballack's limp performance - he leapt out of the way of a crunching Nicky Butt tackle in the early stages - earned him some heckles from Chelsea's frustrated support.
Once again it was Drogba, and his 15th goal of the season, whom Chelsea had to trust when Salomon Kalou and the ineffective Shaun Wright-Phillips failed. Mourinho said later that the Ivorian striker was carrying an injury and was not supposed to play at all. "I was trying to protect him," Mourinho said. "If he gets injured and misses 15 days at this stage of the season then he could miss four to five matches.
"But I felt we needed him at half-time. His attitude in the game and the way he worked for the team meant he was very important for us. He is one of the top players at the moment."
The Chelsea manager was dismissive of the support's attitude towards Ballack - "they don't make the team, I make the team" - and he said that he had not bowed to public pressure to drop Shevchenko. "If I listened to the press I would have dropped him in the second week of the season because he had criticism from then." On his exclusion, Mourinho said Shevchenko "took it like a professional, but he's not happy".
These are problems of a kind but they pale in comparison to Roeder's who finds himself 14th in the table with another casualty to add to the list. The impressive Charles N'Zogbia was carried off in the first half after a clash with Frank Lampard that has left him with a knee injury. Roeder also had a 19-year-old, Paul Huntington, making his debut at right-back and he was given the task of marking Arjen Robben.
The gap between Chelsea and Manchester United may be five points to the rest of the Premiership but to Mourinho it remains just two "because three points depend on us," he said - and he means the visit of Sir Alex Ferguson's team to Stamford Bridge on 14 April. "We have to be sure by then that we have two more points than them."
With Henrique Hilario less than certain in goal and Kalou desperate in front of goal, Chelsea struggled to create much that was meaningful in the first half. Giuseppe Rossi, on loan from Manchester United until next month, struck a low shot from Terry's wayward header that flew just wide of Hilario's post. A header from Antoine Sibierski struck the bar.
An injury to Ricardo Carvalho meant he came off at half-time - as well as Wright-Phillips - with Drogba and Makelele replacing them. Essien moved to centre-back, Kalou to the right wing and Drogba took his place in the centre. By 67 minutes and still no goal, Mourinho had to play his very last card: Shevchenko on for Geremi and, of all people, the 5ft 7in Makelele at centre-back.
With Given exceptional in goal, it took until the 73rd minute for the breakthrough to arrive. Robben put a cross in from the left which, via Shevchenko, found Drogba at the near post to score. In the late stages, Given tipped a Terry header over the bar and made a brilliant save from Robben. "We deserved the three points. But, no doubts, we should play better," said Mourinho. "However, the result is the most important thing."
For Chelsea, the question is how long the minimum will be enough.
Goal: Drogba (74) 1-0.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Hilario; Geremi (Shevchenko, 67), Carvalho (Makelele, h-t), Terry, A Cole; Essien, Ballack, Lampard; Wright-Phillips (Drogba, h-t), Kalou, Robben. Substitutes not used: Hedman (gk), Bridge.
Newcastle United (4-1-4-1): Given; Huntington, Taylor, Ramage, Babayaro; Milner; Butt, N'Zogbia (Pattison, 43), Rossi, Sibierski,(Luque, 78); Martins. Substitutes not used: Srnicek (gk), Edgar, O'Brien.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Chelsea Essien, Makelele; Newcastle Ramage, Babayaro.
Man of the match: Given.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies