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Under pressure to deliver, Villas-Boas was already seeing this away draw as two points lost in the title race.
Under pressure to deliver, Villas-Boas was already seeing this away draw as two points lost in the title race.

Begovic show frustrates Chelsea manager Villas-Boas

Stoke City, never easy opponents on their own turf, collect a point, with the assistance of the referee, Mark Halsey, and their goalkeeper.

STOKE-ON-TRENT // A new era made an anti-climatic start for Chelsea with grit and determination, but without the stylish, soaring success that their owner, Roman Abramovich, demands or, indeed, the fortune that might have brought a hard-fought win.

Instead, with a 33-year-old manager, Andre Villas-Boas, in the dugout, and a 33-year-old striker, Didier Drogba, left on the bench until the closing stages, it amounted to an afternoon of frustration as a succession of penalty appeals were rejected.

Stoke City, never easy opponents on their own turf, collected a point, with the assistance of the referee, Mark Halsey, and the woodwork.

A combination of a flying Asmir Begovic and the crossbar ensured the substitute Nicolas Anelka's curling effort did not give Villas-Boas the first competitive win of the seventh managerial reign of the Abramovich age. "The challenge for us this year is to get back the Premier League title," the Portuguese said. "It's a point: not ideal, but not the end of the world."

He is already deeming it two points dropped, to accompany the two players omitted.

He was bold in attack, starting without both Anelka and Drogba, even though this was the type of game that can suit the Ivorian man-mountain.

In his stead, the 50 million (Dh295m) forward Fernando Torres was selected. An inability to score took his Chelsea record to one goal in 19 games, but his sharp movement and greater hunger offered encouragement.

"He caused us all sorts of problems," said the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis. "I thought he was very, very good."

Torres's personal drought is attributable to a lack of service, while the stalemate was explained in part by different displays of excellence from the two goalkeepers.

Without making a world-class save, Petr Cech was in commanding form.

The choruses of predictions from the stands - "Stoke will tear you apart" - did not quite materialise, but their uncompromising approach, nevertheless, amounted to a fearsome examination of Chelsea's mettle. Rory Delap's trademark throws, together with the set pieces and crosses of the two wingers, Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington, meant a barrage in the box.

A new season, the same old Stoke. They are mightily effective and familiarity with their methods does not render them any more beatable. It was less a test of tactical and technical qualities than of organisation and character.

Without expert planning, Villas-Boas, the analyst turned manager, would not have risen so far or so fast, but there were some anxious moments for the Chelsea defence, and there were hints that his input at the interval changed the match.

"I am happy for our transformation from first half to second half," the manager said.

"It means against this powerful team, we were able to find spaces and create. Unfortunately for us, the goal didn't happen."

His side came close, though. Ramires, an increasing influence, directed a left-footed shot narrowly wide, and a succession of raids forward could have yielded a penalty, either when Ryan Shawcross challenged Torres or when Frank Lampard went over Marc Wilson's leg.

Villas-Boas complained about neither decision, as Halsey's laissez-faire approach riled him.

"The amount of pushing and grabbing in the box was out of this world," he said, unhappy at the grappling during the many set pieces.

In open play, Chelsea's quality began to tell. Begovic tipped John Obi Mikel's dipping volley over his goal and, after touching Anelka's effort on to the woodwork, also saved smartly from Kalou.

Having begun with something approximating to the next generation in attack, Chelsea finished it with the last, as Drogba and Anelka, with a combined age of 65, were reunited.

Inexperienced as the manager is, he was phlegmatic about the major choices he is making. "They are decisions I have to take every week, week in week out," he said, showing a reluctance to "individualise", as he described it, in his post-match discussions.

"He has inherited some great players," Pulis said. "In the second half they got a foothold in the game, and the quality they have got and the depth they have got was there for everyone to see. They will be in the top three again this season."

The sense, though, is that only the top one will do for Villas-Boas and Abramovich.

sports@thenational.ae

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