KALOU CLOSES THE GAP

By Matt Connellan
Dec 31st, 2007

A depleted Chelsea side managed to scrape past Newcastle United with a 2-1 win, courtesy of goals from Michael Essien and Salomon Kalou, albeit the winner was proven to be incorrectly allowed as he was in an offside position. The win proved to be even more valuable as news of Manchester United’s loss to West Ham filtered through to Stamford Bridge.

Petr Čech, after his rare gaffe against Aston Villa, was left out due to injury, as was the two goal hero Andriy Shevchenko. Hilario took the goalkeeping position, and with Cudicini also out, 17 year old reserve team keeper Rhys Taylor was on the substitute’s bench. Exciting winger Scott Sinclair was also on the youthful looking bench.  Carvalho and Ashley Cole were both out suspended, as Avram Grant deployed a 4-3-3 formation, rather than the 4-2-3-1 used against Aston Villa. Belletti, Ben-Haim, Alex and Bridge made up the defence, with Ballack, Essien and Mikel in midfield. In attack, Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole flanked Salmon Kalou. Michael Ballack was chosen to captain the side in the absence of Terry, Lampard, Drogba and Makelélé.

Gérémí was out of the Newcastle side, but Damien Duff made a well received return to Stamford Bridge, playing on the left of a front three. There was striking power held in reserve with both Mark Viduka and a fit again Michael Owen on the bench.

The first chance of the game came after eight minutes and it fell to England winger Shaun Wright-Phillips. Ballack lobbed the ball into the box, but Wright-Phillips mistimed his connection and scuffed the ball out for a goal kick.

Not long after, it was the reverse, as Wright-Phillips’ cross found Ballack, but the German international captain blazed over the bar. Newcastle were struggling to stem the Chelsea tide, evidenced by Faye’s hack on Michael Essien.

Midway through the first half, Mikel’s 25 yard strike forced Given into a fine save as the Irishman kept the score at 0-0 with his acrobatics. After 28 minutes of Chelsea pressure, the Newcastle defence finally gave in. Shaun Wright-Phillips’ shot hit Salomon Kalou and fell kindly into the path of Essien, the midfielder smashing the finish past Given to give the Blues a deserved lead.

With two minutes of the half remaining, Obafemi Martins’ strike flew high and wide as Newcastle fleetingly threatened. A late Wright-Phillips header couldn’t find the target, as Chelsea took a 1-0 lead into the break.

In the opening moments of the second half, Given was forced into another fine save, preventing Nicky Butt scoring a spectacular own goal after he attempted to clear a cross from the lively Wright-Phillips.  The heroics of the Newcastle goalkeeper were just about enough to keep them in the game.

After 56 minutes, Newcastle paid him back for his efforts by scoring the equalising goal. A cross made its way across the box and with Martins and Bridge in close attendance, Nicky Butt managed to bundle the ball over the line, Hilario in no position to prevent the goal. Suddenly, the prospect of dropped points became a real possibility.

After 65 minutes, Grant made his first change of the game, replacing the inconsistent Joe Cole with Pizarro, a change that meant Kalou was moved wide in attack. With twenty minutes remaining, Martins low cross looked destined to find Duff, but a full length slide from Wayne Bridge averted the danger.

A spate of substitutions followed, Rozehnal replacing Newcastle’s captain Alan Smith and Michael Owen making his return in place of Obafemi Martins. Ballack, unable to last the full match, was replaced by the fresh legs of Sinclair, as Essien took the armband.

Alex and Essien both failed to convert chances, before Pizarro fired threateningly across the face of goal. However, with two minutes remaining, Chelsea scored the controversial winner. Mikel’s shot deflected off Pizarro and fell at the feet of Kalou, who took a touch before finishing tidily. Replays later showed that the Ivorian forward was offside, yet the goal stood.

Viduka replaced Duff who received a very warm reception, whilst Sidwell replaced Wright-Phillips as the clocked whiled away injury time. The full time whistle was greeted by an appreciation that grew was the news of United’s defeat was heard. Chelsea, although depleted, are still in touch with the top of the table and with our injury problems soon to ease, the Blues are still a fighting chance of wrestling back our Premiership crown. The win stretched our unbeaten home record to an amazing 73 matches.

Chelsea (4-3-3): Hilario; Belletti, Alex, Ben-Haim, Bridge; Essien, Ballack (c) (Sinclair 77), Mikel; J Cole (Pizarro 65), Kalou, Wright-Phillips (Sidwell 91).

Newcastle (4-4-2): Given; Beye, Taylor, Cacapa, N’Zogbia; Milner, Butt, Faye, Duff (Viduka 89); Smith (Rozehnal 70), Martins (Owen 73).

Referee Steve Bennett

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