x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Lucky Chelsea find way to win

With the exception of their wonderfully worked first goal from Ivanovic, they were not at their most fluent or finest. Yet they prevailed.

BLACKBURN // It is one of football's stranger and more enduring truisms that the best teams win when they are playing badly. Should it have required an example, one was provided at Ewood Park yesterday.

Chelsea were the inferior side for the most part. They had less pressure, fewer chances and were more reliant upon their goalkeeper, Petr Cech. With the exception of their wonderfully worked first goal, they were not at their most fluent or finest. Yet they prevailed.

"They don't have to be playing better than the opposition to win games of football," said Sam Allardyce, the Blackburn Rovers manager, at once admiring and exasperated by Chelsea's resilience. "They have got the punishing side of the game. When they are being outplayed, they hang on in there."

Branislav Ivanovic ensured they took the maximum return from a display that lacked zest and sparkle but revealed other virtues, such as character, spirit and determination. With six minutes remaining, the right-back headed in Yuri Zhirkov's cross.

"Fantastic play by Zhirkov," said Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager. He was less effusive about the rest of the performance. "We were a little bit lucky," he said. "It is very difficult to play here. They were better but it is an important result."

It was one that could conceivably have been a Blackburn victory. Barely two minutes before Ivanovic intervened, the Rovers replacement, Jason Roberts, in an incident that could epitomise his career, provided everything but the finish by sliding his shot narrowly past the post. "A golden chance," Allardyce said.

"It's one of those days when you have played as well as you could possibly play," Allardyce added. "It's tremendously disappointing.

"You get the ultimate kick in the teeth when you don't punish the opposition. A team as good as Chelsea will take advantage of it."

His side buffeted Chelsea, the three-pronged attack of Benjani and the Dioufs, El Hadji and Mame Biram, providing a muscular menace. They almost struck with an unexpected deftness when Mame Biram Diouf floated a chip that, when Cech lost his balance, threatened to loop in.

The goalkeeper recovered to preserve parity, but not for long.

The breakthrough came from a cross from the influential El Hadji Diouf that Benjani, rising above a leaden-footed John Terry, met. The finish was unconventional, going in via the forward's right shoulder, but it was celebrated with the enthusiasm that is explained by a 22-month wait for a league goal.

Chelsea levelled from a wonderful combination of their front three, marrying expert delivery with an intuitive ability to interchange positions and a fine finish.

Florent Malouda's pinpoint deep cross was directed to the far post where Didier Drogba appeared in Nicolas Anelka's normal position, heading the ball unselfishly back towards the Frenchman.

He finished with delicate nonchalance, dinking the ball over Paul Robinson. "Quality," Allardyce said. Yet it was otherwise in short supply until Zhirkov fashioned the chance to cross and found Ivanovic.

"A bitter pill," in Allardyce's words, it was also an illustration of the cruelty that the finest teams possess.

By their own exalted standards, the admired attacking talents - Drogba, Anelka and Malouda - did not impress. Each was a marginal figure, outperformed by their Blackburn counterparts. But Chelsea, in trademark fashion, duly won. That, as their fans chorused, is why they are champions.