LONDON // Perhaps Chelsea are finally emerging from the shadow of damaging front-page headlines. If they are, then Florent Malouda deserves plenty of credit for dragging his side back to the top of the Premier League in what eventually became a convincing win over West Ham. John Terry, the Chelsea captain, was predictably the subject of yet more insulting chants from the visiting support as the fall out from his alleged affair with the former girlfriend of England teammate Wayne Bridge continues, but it was Malouda, the French winger, who created Chelsea's first two goals and scored the decisive third in a victory that was borne more out of resilience as much as it was skill.
Yet it was the perfect response to a morale-sapping 4-2 home defeat to Manchester City in their last league outing and the win diverts pressure onto Manchester United ahead of their clash against Fulham today. Chelsea are one point clear at the top of the Premier League having played the same number of games as Sir Alex Ferguson's side. Alex, Chelsea's in-form Brazilian defender, headed the opener before Scott Parker scored a superb long-range effort to level the scoreline. After the half-time interval, Carlo Ancelotti's side hit their stride with Didier Drogba scoring either side of Malouda's ninth goal of the season.
It also sent a stark message to Jose Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager who brings his Inter Milan side to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night in the Champions League. It will no doubt be an emotional occasion for Mourinho, but Ancelotti does not care for sentiment. On becoming Parma manager in 1996 he sold Gianfranco Zola to Chelsea, and he brushed aside his Italian compatriot with similar ruthlessness here.
"I am happy to be back at the top of the table and I think it was a very good performance from us," reflected Ancelotti. "That is the best I have seen Malouda play since I have been here. His crossing was fantastic and he was excellent, I hope he plays the same way on Tuesday." For West Ham, their stuttering battle for relegation survival continues. They sit fifth from bottom and with another London derby at Arsenal on the horizon next week, it will not get any easier.
"It was a difficult game for us and I think we defended poorly," said Zola, the West Ham manager, who also explained that leading scorer Carlton Cole was left on the substitutes' bench because of a knee problem. Cole's omission was one of five changes to the side than surrendered limply against Bolton a week earlier, but Zola's line-up seemed to confuse his own players as Chelsea started briskly. Yet West Ham had a glorious early opportunity to test Ross Turnbull, the third choice Chelsea goalkeeper forced into the side by injuries to Petr Cech and Hilario.
Mido picked out Ilan ten yards from goal, the Brazilian had space but fired over the bar. In the 16th minute, the home side took the lead with a goal of astonishing simplicity. Malouda received the ball on the left and clipped in a cross which was met by a perfectly timed run by Alex, who headed into the far corner. The game seemed on course for a routine Chelsea victory at Stamford Bridge until Parker levelled with a stunning strike, crashing a stinging volley into the top corner from 25 yards after the ball bounced kindly. Chelsea regained the lead 11 minutes after the re-start and Malouda was once again the provider, delivering another perfect cross onto Drogba's grateful head two yards from goal. Malouda then created space for himself on the edge of the area and fired low into the net before Drogba tapped in a rebound after Robert Green, the England goalkeeper, failed to hold onto Frank Lampard's effort.
A performance like that from Malouda on Tuesday and Chelsea could be celebrating another famous victory. firstname.lastname@example.org