It was "sod's law", decreed the West Bromwich manager, Roy Hodgson, that Fernando Torres would break his scoring duck for Chelsea against the man who was his manager at Liverpool. The Spaniard remains goalless, denied by a marginal offside decision in his substitute's cameo, but Didier Drogba again underlined his worth with a goal and a masterclass in centre-forward play.
For the first time since Carlo Ancelotti lavished £50m on his new striker in January, Drogba started without either Torres or Nicolas Anelka alongside him. After starting on the bench in the Champions' League tussle at Manchester United, he revelled in the opportunity. First he negated Peter Odemwingie's opener for Albion; then he provided the assist when Solomon Kalou put Chelsea in front; and he launched the move that effectively put the fallen Double winners of last spring out of sight before half-time.
Chelsea's eighth win in 11 Premier League games, only one of which has been lost, took them to within a point of second-placed Arsenal. Asked whether they were still contenders to retain their title, Ancelotti's reply seemed to rule out any dramatic late surge while acknowledging that he may not be around come next August's big kick-off. "I know very well we were not good enough this season, but I hope we can finish well," said the Chelsea manager. "After that the club will make a decision."
Ancelotti's future would not be being debated if Torres had mustered even the occasional goal. The World Cup winner has now gone 870 minutes without finding the net for club or country, though Ancelottiwas justified in saying he was "very unlucky" when an offside flag stifled his joy after he ran on to a pass by Florent Malouda and beat Scott Carson.
Drogba, by contrast, was at his most imperious. Was it not an amazing decision to leave him out of the starting line-up at Old Trafford? "Maybe," said Ancelotti with a coy smile. "He played very well here. But that's in the past. We have to look forward."
Albion are still theoretically threatened by relegation but look eminentlycapable of safety. Hodgson, somewhat bizarrely, said: "We've had a wonderful spell. Now we have to learn to lose. The Swedes have a saying that no tree grows to heaven and we've been reminded that we're a very ordinary birch in West Bromwich and not something out of Jack and the Beanstalk."
Yet Albion were ahead before Chelsea settled, Youssouf Mulumbu initiating a bout of slick passing which took in James Morrison and Jerome Thomas before Odemwingie was sent clear. A splendidly composed 16-yard chip over Petr Cech brought the Nigerian his 12th goal of the season, an Albion record in the Premier League.
If there was a hangover from their European exit, Chelsea would have thrown in the towel there and then. Instead, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel asserted themselves in midfield while Ashley Cole marauded down the left flank. The increase in tempo found Albion chasing shadowsand before half-time Carson had been beaten three times.
The visitors' first goal had unhappyechoes of the goalkeeper's last England outing, the calamity against Croatia that saw them miss Euro 2008. Cole fed Malouda, whose low cross was parried so weakly by Carson that Nicky Shorey was panicked into a sliding clearance. The ball ran to Drogba, who scored easily.
Four minutes later, Drogba glided through a couple of challenges before hitting a right-footed shot that Carson again failed to deal with adequately. This time the ball squirted loose to Kalou, who angled his shot into the far corner.
Drogba turned playmaker on the stroke of half-time, lofting a pass from 10 yards inside his own half to Malouda. The Frenchman spotted the supporting run by Frank Lampard, who confidently sidefooted home a first-time shot from just inside the 18-yard box.
For Chelsea, it was a case of normal service resumed. For their expensive misfit, the wait goes on.
Referee: Lee Probert
Man of the match: Drogba
Ancelotti linked with Roma job
If, as expected, Roman Abramovich parts company with Carlo Ancelotti this summer, expect the Chelsea manager to resurface in his native Italy.
Reports suggest that Ancelotti is likely to go to the Roma, who have been taken over by the United States businessman Thomas Di Benedetto. According to La Repubblica: "One certainty is divorce between Ancelotti and Abramovich." Ancelotti is also admired by the Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, which throws up the intriguing prospect of the Italian swapping jobs with Jose Mourinho,but that would also need Abramovich to swallow his pride and ask the popular Portuguese to return to Stamford Bridge.
The former Italy coach Marcello Lippi has already offered his services to Chelsea but Abramovic retains his enthusiasm for Guus Hiddink. The Russian is also an admirer of Marseille's Didier Deschamps. Other names linked with Chelsea include Rafael Benitez, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard. All three would also be in the running for the Manchester City job if Roberto Mancini fails to qualify for the Champions' League. Juventus has been mentioned as a home for Mancini if they part company with Luigi Del Neri.
James Hanning and Marc Padgett
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