A first home league win for Chelsea against Reading since 1929 which, given they have played each other only a couple of times in the intervening years, is not as startling a statistic as it sounds. No, the real impression last night was left by Avram Grant's side on the pitch with a performance rich in creativity – through a midfield triumvirate brilliantly marshalled by the indefatigable Claude Makelele – and intent.
There was an impressive statistic, however. The result earned a ninth successive victory – which, interestingly, equalled the club record set only two years ago by a certain Jose Mourinho. And still the supporters do not chant for Grant, even if he has achieved the feat without many of the "untouchables" anointed by the Special One. One of them did score, however, Michael Ballack's powerful first-half header settling the contest.
It was not, according to Steve Coppell, "calypso football". But there was certainly enough rhythm to dispose of the Reading manager's team more convincingly than the score-line suggests, even if they almost paid a heavy price when James Harper was presented with a clear sight of goal by Leroy Lita only to make a hash of his volley.
Still, Coppell was impressed enough to add that the title was now a "three-horse race". And he went on: "Chelsea will have to keep winning but you could see them going through the rest of the season unbeaten."
Grant was unsure about that, of course, but said his immediate aim was to remain in touch until his reinforcements arrive from the African Nations Cup and the treatment table – and Ashley Cole, perhaps, puts his personal problems behind him.
"We should have scored more goals," Grant lamented. "Their goalkeeper was great but it was more that we missed." Shaun Wright-Phillips, lively and energetic, was particularly culpable, wasting two one-on-ones after being released by Makelele, who has not only assumed the captaincy but a previously unheralded ability to pick a decisive forward pass.
It did not help Reading's cause that they lacked Dave Kitson, absent through a bout of flu, although Coppell maintained it did not affect his planning. That planning certainly did not include standing off their opponents for the opening 45 minutes as Reading were "passive" and Chelsea quickly piled on waves of attacks through Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole.
Marcus Hahnemann did indeed pull off a series of alert saves, notably pushing away Cole's drive, but flapped at a corner only for John Oster to hook the ball off the goal-line. Again Reading failed to clear and Paulo Ferreira broke on the right and crossed deep for Ballack, returning from a calf injury, to arrive late in the penalty area, leap and thump a header into the net.
Coppell said his team "had a go" in the second half and he was right. But just a dozen seconds after the restart they should have fallen further behind as Cole dispossessed Nicky Shorey only to drag his shot narrowly past the far post as Nicolas Anelka lunged to meet the ball. Anelka then pulled away to be picked out by Wayne Bridge. His header thudded into the turf and sped goalwards only for Hahnemann to push it around the post.
Suddenly, however, the opportunities dried up and the confidence of Reading, now eight games without a win but surely too good to be sucked into a relegation scrap, grew. Chelsea's lack of comfort betrayed the way they had, earlier, dominated. That was a concern for Grant but he was right in his summary. He was charged with providing more "style" and, slowly, Chelsea are getting there.
Goal: Ballack (32) 1-0
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cech; Ferreira, Alex, Carvalho, Bridge; Wright-Phillips (Sidwell, 86), Makelele, Ballack, J Cole; Anelka, Malouda (Pizarro, 76). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Sinclair, Ben-Haim.
Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Murty, Cissé, Ingimarsson, Shorey; Oster (Matejovsky, 81), Harper, Hunt, Convey (Rosenior, 85); Lita, Doyle. Substitutes not used: Federici (gk), De la Cruz, Bennett.
Referee: M Dean (The Wirral).
Man of the match: Makelele.
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