Should Chelsea fail to win the Premier League title for a fourth consecutive year, they are sure to look back ruefully on their performances in the north-west. Carlo Ancelotti's first trips to Wigan, Everton and Manchester City all ended in defeat, and yesterday Blackburn shrugged off the setback of Didier Drogba's early goal to restrict them to a single point in the Ewood Park drizzle.
El-Hadji Diouf headed Blackburn's second-half equaliser, and for all that Chelsea piled forward in pursuit of a winner in the final minutes, they struggled to recapture the fluidity of their football during a first half in which a three-goal advantage would not have flattered them.
Chelsea now visit Portsmouth on Wednesday – even an anticipated victory over Avram Grant's doomed team would leave them a point adrift of United – before a visit to Old Trafford on 3 April and the penultimate fixture at Liverpool.
Ironically, Blackburn's strength at home, where they have lost only twice this season, could yet help Chelsea to finish ahead of United and Arsenal, who are both due at Ewood during the final weeks. Sam Allardyce's side also eliminated Chelsea from the Carling Cup on penalties before Christmas and there is a doggedness about them which means the title contenders will underestimate them at their peril.
Chelsea were possibly guilty of doing so here; in the second half, however, Ancellotti admitted Chelsea's composure went AWOL.
"We started well but it was more difficult on this pitch for us to play on the floor," the Chelsea manager said. "In the second half we lost a bit of composure and conceded a goal. After that we had another strong spell but it was too late and we have lost two important points."
Asked whether the second-half display was a hangover from the Champions League exit at the hands of Jose Mourinho's Internazionale, or if the pressure of the John Terry affair affected Chelsea's equilibrium, Ancelotti played a straight bat. "We tried to win this game and for an hour we did well. It will be more difficult now to win the title, but not impossible.
"We have to leave this moment as soon as possible. We have to look forward and to win [on Wednesday] is the only solution to do that. We have less probability to win the title, but we need to stay compact and work together at this moment."
Allardyce, who was disinclined to revise his prediction that Chelsea may win the League and FA Cup double, felt the performance of his 18-year-old, debutant central defender Phil Jones epitomised Blackburn's effort. "We think he has the look of John Terry about him," he said without any apparent irony. "He had one hell of a debut and we think he's got a bright future."
The Blackburn manager is, of course, a friend of Sir Alex Ferguson's, yet he played down the suggestion that he would be pleased to have done United a favour. "This was for us, not for Sir Alex. The most important thing is that it's another point towards safety."
In the opening stages, however, Chelsea looked anything but a team in crisis, oozing confidence and scoring early. Frank Lampard's pass down the right-hand side picked out a run by Nicolas Anelka, who ghosted through two challenges before showing impressive composure by cutting the ball back to a yard beyond the penalty mark. Drogba took it with his left foot, side-footing home his 28th goal of the season as if taking a spot-kick.
Chelsea had several opportunities to kill off Blackburn. Salomon Kalou headed narrowly over, an Alex volley thudded into Martin Olsson's midriff, flooring him and Florent Malouda, taking a pass by the lively Kalou and gliding past two challenges, fired straight at Brown.
Chelsea's lack of ruthlessness encouraged Blackburn to raise their tempo after half-time, although Allardyce may have been unduly conservative in sticking to a single striker throughout. Even when he sent on Jason Roberts, it was to replace lone striker Nikola Kalinic.
A hint of the kind of vulnerability Chelsea might demonstrate under pressure emerged moments after half-time when Yury Zhirkov, who had replaced the injured Branislav Ivanovic in first-half stoppage time, headed off the line from a header by Christopher Samba.
There was no such reprieve after Michel Salgado swung in a deep cross from the right. When it reached the far post, Paulo Ferreira was beaten in the air by the conspicuously peroxide-topped head of Diouf. At the final whistle, Allardyce punched the air, while Ancelotti's grey, grizzled countenance was furrowed with anxiety.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-1-1): Brown; Salgado, Samba, Jones, Olsson; Pedersen, Andrews, Nzonzi (Hoillet, 90), Diouf; Dunn (Emerton, 56); Kalinic (Roberts, 63). Substitutes not used: Bunn (gk), Jacobsen, Linganzi, Chimbonda.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Turnbull; Ivanovic (Zhirkov, 45), Alex, Terry, Ferreira; Lampard, Mikel, Malouda; Anelka (Sturridge, 90), Drogba, Kalou (Deco, 73). Substitutes not used: Sebek (gk), Cole, Matic, Bruma.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Chelsea Zhirkov.
Man of the match: Jones.
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