x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lethargic Chelsea stumble home against West Brom

After a poor first half Chelsea turned around a goal deficit to triumph at Stamford Bridge, with goals from Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda.

Andre Villas-Boas did not have to deal with much of this at Porto. His silver-laden season was one of such persistent dominance observers struggle to recall a match where their young coach was required to turn the game around at half time.

Two games into his Premier League managerial career, it is in danger of becoming a regular event. Scoreless at Stoke City last week, Chelsea improved following his interval intervention - yet did not win.

A goal down to a resilient West Bromwich Albion yesterday, they were stirred into recovering the game - but only just. Easy to see why Villas-Boas has pushed for the purchases of Juan Manuel Mata and Luka Modric - this team requires their freshness. It is no longer the Chelsea created by a mentor Villas-Boas fell out with, Jose Mourinho. Some names remain the same; not many performances.

Villas-Boas preferred to blame anxiety. "Today was a very emotional game and the emotional part of the game was the main difference between the halves," he said.

"In the first half we lost the goal, too early, and the players couldn't express themselves to the best of their talent. Our half-time talk was for the players to free themselves from the anxiety they were suffering, because the public was anxious and the players were anxious."

Deprived of Petr Cech by training-ground medial ligament damage, Villas-Boas chose Henrique Hilario ahead of Ross Turnbull, a man who had managed no clean sheets in 10 Chelsea starts.

Nicolas Anelka came in on the right wing and, regardless of Didier Drogba's record of eight goals in seven Premier League matches against these opponents, Fernando Torres continued at centre forward.

On the other end Roy Hodgson, another man who had also toiled to resolve the enigma of the Spaniard as Liverpool manager, stayed true to a starting 11 that had run Manchester United close last weekend.

The fixture list has not been kind to Villas-Boas. Stoke away was a hiding to nothing; a venue from where few teams emerge with three points yet one where a Chelsea manager is expected to.

Less than a year into his tenure, Hodgson's West Brom have been reshaped in his uncomplicated tactical image. Physically fit, solidly organised, defensively strong and eminently capable of causing damage.

Here, Chelsea handed over the opening goal. Walking the ball out from his own half, Alex wandered into a Shane Long block and had neither the pace or power to recover possession. Holding the defender off, the striker advanced into the area and slid the ball past Hilario. Stamford Bridge stood bemused.

Chelsea's reaction almost entirely absent, the damage almost multiplied. Long, now the sole West Brom player to score in his first two Premier League games for the team, drifted past Alex again but did not find the finish this time.

Chris Brunt clipped a smart ball beyond Ashley Cole for Paul Scharner to strain Hilario. Long left John Terry trailing then overhit a straightforward square pass to the unmarked Somen Tchoyi.

Chelsea had offered almost nothing until Villas-Boas changed personnel. Shortly past the half-hour mark, Salomon Kalou, not Chelsea's worst offender, was withdrawn in favour of Florent Malouda and gradually Chelsea injected some energy into their play.

If Ashley Cole's shot from 30 yards was speculative it at least forced a save from Ben Foster. Alex's powered free kick cannoned off Malouda, but into the goalkeeper's relieved arms before the interval.

With the home support calling for Drogba's introduction, Anelka recovered possession in the penalty area, worked his way towards Jonas Olsson, then directed a shot off the defender's inner ankle and in.

Though obsession and territory were now predominantly Chelsea's Long almost restored the lead with a back post-header; Hilario saved acrobatically from Tchoyi. At the other end Foster made a double save from Anelka and Malouda.

On the touchline Villas-Boas crouched and bounced and clutched at his tie. His redemption was to come from a restored compatriot. Stood up by two defenders, Jose Bosingwa, the Portuguese right-back, slid the ball between them and sprinted through the gap.

As exhilarating as the run, the delicately looped pass behind the centre-backs for Malouda to finish was still better. Chelsea need to be, too.

It left the West Brom manager lamenting what could have been from both their opening fixtures.

"A bit of deja vu, we didn't do badly against Manchester United, before conceding a late goal," said Hodgson who was then asked to compare the title contenders.

"I'm an Oscar Wilde man. I don't believe in comparisons," he said.

Abramovich, however, believes in little else.

sports@thenational.ae