x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Diouf on hand to prolong Chelsea's blues

After their Champions League exit in midweek, Carlo Ancelotti sees things get worse for his Chelsea side in the Premier League title race.

Didier Drogba, back left, scores Chelsea's goal past the dive of Blackburn's Jason Brown.
Didier Drogba, back left, scores Chelsea's goal past the dive of Blackburn's Jason Brown.

BLACKBURN // After their Champions League exit in midweek at the hands of Inter Milan, Carlo Ancelotti saw things get worse for his Chelsea side in the Premier League title race. El-Hadji Diouf's 70th-minute equaliser left them with just a point to show for their efforts yesterday. It means Chelsea are four points behind Manchester United at the top and a victory in their game in hand, against Portsmouth on Wednesday, will still leave them trailing the champions. Sir Alex Ferguson's side also have a better goal difference.

The only comfort Ancelotti may draw from a difficult physical and mental battle at Ewood Park is that both United and Arsenal have to come here. It will not be easy. Chelsea started strongly, as if they were smarting from the criticism following the defeat to Inter on Tuesday, and got the opening goal in the sixth minute. Nicolas Anelka raced away down the right, cut inside Keith Andrews and pulled it back perfectly for Didier Drogba to place a left-foot shot into the corner for his 28th goal of the season. It was a harsh welcome to life in the Premier League for Phil Jones. With Ryan Nelsen and Gael Givet both injured, the centre-back, 18, was given his league debut against one of the best strikers in the world.

The most experienced defenders have been troubled by the Ivorian, but Jones, with just three Carling Cup appearances in his senior career, was undeterred by the goal and undaunted by the challenge. Composure and several crunching tackles showed a confidence beyond his teenage years and scant regard for Chelsea's reputation. "We think Phil Jones has the look of John Terry in his body language and certainly it is a great debut for him," said Sam Allardyce, the Blackburn manager. "He's got a bright future. I'm sure he'll sleep very well tonight but he will wake up a very proud man tomorrow."

But it was not just Drogba that Blackburn had to worry about early on. Anelka and Salomon Kalou frequently found space as Chelsea's three-pronged attack flourished. Their passing was slick and chances inevitably followed. Kalou headed over from a Frank Lampard header, Anelka shot wide and then Alex had a goal-bound volley blocked by Steven Nzonzi. Kalou's performance was typical of the Chelsea front man as he worked hard at both ends of the pitch. He cut out a loose ball from Nzonzi to set up Florent Malouda for a strong run and shot that was straight at Jason Brown, who comfortably beat it out.

Chelsea beat Blackburn 5-0 at home in October, but Rovers have vastly improved since then and are a different proposition on their own ground. Only Manchester City and Tottenham have beaten them in the league at Ewood and their work-rate and willingness to scrap for every ball has not gone unrewarded. David Dunn did provide some flair, but it was only after the break that Ross Turnbull's goal was really threatened.

The Chelsea keeper was grateful Yuri Zhirkov, a replacement for the injured Ivanovic, was on the line to head clear after Christopher Samba had flicked on a long throw from Morten Gamst Pedersen. The visitors did not have as much time on the ball as before and an equaliser duly came in the 70th minute. Michel Salgado swung over a deep cross from the right and Diouf rose above Paulo Ferreira and nodded in Blackburn's first league goal against Chelsea in four years.

As they withstood late pressure, the Rovers fans celebrated at the end like this was a victory. In nearby Manchester, it certainly will be. "We tried to forget the game against Inter and for an hour we did well," said Ancelotti. "But I am disappointed we have lost two important points. It's not an easy moment for us, but we have to maintain confidence." akhan@thenational.ae