Avram Grant’s Chelsea downed Alex McLeish’s spirited Birmingham City side at St. Andrews, a late goal from Claudio Pizarro enough to keep the fluro-yellow Chelsea bandwagon rolling. Grant made just one change to the Chelsea lineup after the 2-0 win over Tottenham last weekend, £15m forward Nicolas Anelka being preferred as the lone striker to the Peruvian Pizarro.
Birmingham, who were defeated 3-2 in the opening match of the season by the Blues, had Maik Taylor in goal this time around and goalscorer from that day, Chelsea old boy Mikael Forssell on the bench, as well as new signing from Everton, James McFadden.
After just five minutes, Shaun Wright-Phillips was hobbling after falling awkwardly attempting to control a pass, but he was able to continue, if only briefly. Michael Ballack, again wearing the armband, lined up a free kick 35 yards from goal, but his attempt at an Alex-esque strike at goal was poor and the ball bounced safely through to Birmingham keeper Taylor.
A minute later, O’Connor should have done better for City, his header from an outswinging corner placed high and wide as he was unmarked at the back post. The next chance for the home side was also a header, this time from Kapo, but Čech was able to gather easily. Ballack had another set piece opportunity, this time from the left. He bent in a beautiful delivery with pace towards the top corner, and a vital header clear from Ridgewell was all that prevented a chance being created.
On 28 minutes, Wright-Phillips, still feeling the effects of his early knock, was replaced by the man that turned out to be the match winner, Claudio Pizarro.
Čech’s error nearly allowed Cameron Jerome to give Birmingham the lead. The Chelsea keeper’s poor clearance was straight onto the head of the Birmingham forward, but luckily for the Blues, his reaction header bounced onto the post and out for a goal kick. The same player almost gave City the lead in the closing moments of the first half, his shot cleared off the line by Alex after Kapo’s initial shot was blocked on the edge of the area, as Birmingham increased the pressure.
Kapo shot very high and very wide at the start of the second half, before Anelka shot wide of the opposite goal a few minutes later.
After the hour mark, Anelka had the best chance of the game. Joe Cole’s long pass was flicked on by the striker to his fellow Frenchman, the quiet Florent Malouda, who then caught the Birmingham defence by surprise to play the pass back to Anelka, one-on-one with Taylor. However a wonderful late challenge saw him scuff the chance straight at the goalkeeper under pressure.
A double sub followed for Birmingham, McFadden and Forssell replacing Jerome and O’Connor. The new singing nearly delivered with his first touch, but his fierce low drive was beaten away by Čech.
Finally the deadlock was broken, with just 12 minutes remaining. Belletti, taking his first corner of the match, swung in a cross later described as “world class” by Alex McLeish, where Pizarro showed great strength to hold off his marker and power a header past Taylor. It was his second goal of the season, his first since the opening day of the season.
Anelka, who had periods of liveliness throughout, forced a good save from Taylor after he shot from the left hand side towards the end of the match, before Grant introduced Sidwell and Bridge in place of Joe Cole and Malouda to shore up the result.
After three minutes of stoppage time, referee Styles blew full time on a gritty contest, in which Birmingham probably deserved to get something out of the game. But Avram Grant’s Chelsea continue churning out the results, and the leaders are very aware of the Blues breathing down their necks at the top of the table.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Čech; Belletti, Alex, Carvalho, A Cole; Wright-Phillips (Pizarro 28), Makelélé, Ballack (c); J Cole (Sidwell 84), Anelka, Malouda (Bridge 92).
Birmingham (4-4-2): Taylor; Kelly, Schmitz, Ridgewell, Queudrue; Larsson, Muamba, Johnson (c), Kapo; Jerome (McFadden 71), O’Connor (Forsell 71).
Referee Rob Styles