The month Chelsea won the title for the one and only time in their history Marilyn Monroe was featured in a new film called The Seven Year Itch. The Hollywood club of English football have waited 47 years to end their championship hitch. It will be 48 come May. Whether Claudio Ranieri can repeat the feat of 1955 remains to be seen, but for the time being his boys in blue are still a little way short of the Premiership summit.
Their chance to go top yesterday came and went at the Riverside. Chelsea stretched their unbeaten run to an 11th match in League and cup competition, but they couldn't quite find the extra finishing touch they required to see off a stubborn Middlesbrough side who remain unbeaten on home turf this season.
It was a Real Madrid player who thwarted Chelsea's upwardly mobile ambitions. Géremi – on loan for the season from the European Cup holders – struck the free-kick that left Chelsea playing catch-up from the 32nd minute. A John Terry goal 10 minutes later kept the blue flag flying in the title race, albeit in the wake of Arsenal and Manchester United.
"One point is OK," Ranieri said. "It's good. It's better than nothing." The Chelsea manager had reason to be satisfied, too, in the light of television replays showing that Szilard Nemeth had not been standing in an offside position when he cracked in a 60th-minute shot that would have been a winner for Middlesbrough. "I know it was good," Ranieri said, of the disallowed "goal", "but it was not a free-kick when they scored."
Ranieri was without his captain yesterday, Marcel Desailly having been given permission to miss the trip to Teesside for what were described as "personal reasons". It split up the Gallic central defensive partnership on which their ascent of the Premiership has been forged. Terry took over alongside William Gallas and was made captain. Not that there was much for him to do in the early stages as Chelsea went straight for the jugular.
There were just 50 seconds on the clock when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scooped a shot wide from the edge of the penalty area, an opportunity that came from a Mario Melchiot break and a measured lay-off by Gianfranco Zola. With greater accuracy Hasselbaink might have claimed a hat-trick inside six minutes but he followed his initial miss by firing a second chance at Mark Schwarzer and screwing a third wide. Not that the blue tide was unrelenting.
Indeed, Carlo Cudicini was grateful to grasp a hooked shot from Gareth Southgate and Terry blocked a close-range effort by Jonathan Greening. The prevailing tide, however, continued to flow in the direction of Schwarzer's goal. Middlesbrough's three-man midfield struggled to cut off the supply line to the darting Zola and the equally mobile Hasselbaink. It was Emmanuel Petit, though, who changed the complexion of the game on the half-hour – albeit unwittingly.
In halting Greening's break through the middle, the Frenchman was adjudged to have caught the heels of the Middlesbrough midfielder. It presented Boro with a free-kick 25 metres from goal and Géremi stepped up to smack a right-foot shot into the top-right corner. It came against the run of play but set in motion a furious run of goalmouth action at both ends before the break.
First Zola slipped clear on the edge of the area and drew a fine save from Schwarzer. Then Nemeth made a searing break on the right for Middlesbrough and delivered a low cross that Massimo Maccarone, without a goal since September, directed despairingly wide. The Italian redeemed himself in the final minute of the half, chesting a Mario Stanic header off the line, but Chelsea had already levelled by then. The home defence failed to clear Hasselbaink's corner and Terry scored from eight yards.
It was no more than Chelsea deserved, though it was a different story after the break. The Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren, withdrew Maccarone at the interval and played the second half without a one-man disadvantage in the centre of the park.
Chelsea's all-round composure gradually dissipated and, even without Nemeth's disallowed effort, Boro might have taken all three points. Noel Whelan, Maccarone's half-time replacement, had the Chelsea goal at his mercy. From point-blank range, he directed his header into the arms of a grateful Cudicini.
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