While others lost their nerve in the title race last night, Luiz Felipe Scolari's team held firm and now the Premier League has a new look: Chelsea are coming. Two goals from Salomon Kalou puts them second in the league and they have Liverpool in the crosshairs.
Last night was the fourth win in a row for Scolari's team and included a bitter touchline row between the Chelsea manager and Gareth Southgate - it was like the Jose Mourinho years all over again. Middlesbrough's manager accused the Brazilian coach of trying to get Mohamed Shawky send off and, in response, Scolari refused to shake the hand of Southgate or his assistants and then boycotted the post-match press conference.
As the pressure grew in the first half, and Chelsea failed to break Middlesbrough down, Scolari gestured for the referee to dismiss Shawky - already booked - and ended up in a confrontation with Southgate's assistant Malcolm Crosby. Southgate said: "There were words between my assistant and Phil Scolari. He seemed to want to get one of my players booked [Shawky had already been cautioned].
"We weren't happy with that. As far as we were concerned that was the end of it. He didn't shake hands at the end. A strange reaction, but that's his prerogative."
Sent out in his boss' absence, Ray Wilkins, the assistant first team coach, said that it was a natural reaction from Scolari. "It's a very emotional game, isn't it?" Wilkins said. "Passions run high. They ran high on their bench. They did on ours." Then to prove his point Wilkins embarked on a long, tetchy complaint about the abuse aimed at Frank Lampard in away grounds, although it was hard to divine exactly what point was being made.
Nevertheless, with his team struggling to break Middlesbrough down, Big Phil looked - to paraphrase a new chant - like he might be cracking up. By the end of the game his side were second in the Premier League and now go to Anfield on Sunday in a position to deal a mighty blow to Liverpool's title prospects. It will be there that Scolari's Chelsea face their red-letter day, they are yet to beat one of the traditional big four under their Brazilian coach.
Four wins in a row, a far superior goal difference to Liverpool and suddenly life looks a bit brighter for Scolari. They may be rising inexorably up the Premier League but Chelsea are still not as fluent as they have been in title-winning seasons of the past and they could do with a signature victory to really lay down a marker. They have won all four games since that 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford but they need to do it against one of their fellow title contenders.
Kalou was an unlikely rescue act in the second half, having looked peripheral until then. The introduction of Didier Drogba at half-time shook things up a bit, although given the lack of options on the bench it was the only significant tactical change that Scolari could make. Kalou's goals were marked with a cross-wrist celebration which the player subsequently denied was a gesture of support for Ivory Coast activist Assale Tiemoko Antoine - as had first been thought.
Life is a lot harder for Middlesbrough who have now failed to win in their last 11 league games. They came to Stamford Bridge to defend, leaving Marlon King on his own up front on his debut and pretty much got what they deserved. "We're not where we'd like to be," Southgate said. "We've had a tough run. But I don't think anyone in the country expected us to get anything. We have to tighten up on the things that went wrong."
The things that went wrong were two goals conceded from set-pieces. The first on 58 minutes when Chelsea defender Alex da Costa headed down a corner, David Wheater half-cleared and Kalou slammed in the loose ball. Kalou's second was a wretched error from goalkeeper Ross Turnbull who allowed a corner to drift over his head and the Chelsea winger was there to nod it in without difficulty.
After that you could forget the miskick from Drogba at the start of the second half and the inability of Chelsea's full-backs to get beyond Middlesbrough. They will have to raise themselves to beat Liverpool at Anfield but at least Chelsea will be able to rely on Benitez's side attacking them first. And they go to Merseyside as the team on the rise.
Goals: Kalou (58) 1-0; Kalou (81) 2-0.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Bosingwa, Alex, Terry, A Cole; Mikel; Kalou (Deco, 82), Ballack, Lampard, Malouda (Drogba, h-t); Anelka (Stoch, 89). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Ivanovic, Ferreira, Mancienne.
Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Turnbull; McMahon, Riggott, Wheater, Pogatetz; A Johnson, Bates, O'Neil, Shawky (Tuncay, 64), Downing; King (Alves, 64). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Taylor, Emnes, Huth, Arca.
Referee: L Probert (Wiltshire).
Booked: Middlesbrough Shawky, Riggott.
Man of the match: Kalou.
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