A revitalised Demba Ba scored the winner in successive games as Chelsea saw off a stubborn 10-man Swansea City and kept their title charge alive.
Ba made only his third league start and his first since the game against Norwich in October as one of five changes to the side that heroically dispatched of PSG midweek. Ramires and Matic replaced David Luiz and Lampard as the midfield anchors, with Schurrle and Salah coming in for Hazard and Oscar. Eto’o was dropped in favour of once-forgotten, newly-remembered Ba.
The relegation-threatened hosts were lively from the start, with Pablo Hernandez and Wilfried Bony forcing saves from Cech, the latter a terrific header matched by an equally brilliant stop.
They were helped no doubt but Chelsea’s sluggishness in the middle, Ramires especially guilty of losing possession as the hosts looked to establish a shock early lead.
Sandwiched between those early Swans chances was a glorious opportunity for a Blues opener, as Salah failed to convert from 8 yards after neat interplay from Schurrle and Ivanovic down the right.
The game was radically altered as two quick yellow cards for Chico Flores reduced the hosts to 10 men. The first a cynical block to deny onrushing Willian the chance to break, the second just two minutes afterwards for dangling a leg out tripping Andre Schurrle, leaving Phil Dowd no option but to send him off.
As a result, the Swans defended deep, restricting Chelsea to shots from distance, all of which off target. Once Chelsea had finally broken through, Salah had once again spurned a chance to lead. Some more neat play around the Swansea box left the Egyptian international free, but could only manage to sky his effort.
As the half-time whistle sounded, you would not be forgiven for thinking this could be another result filed under ‘Games Chelsea Dominated But Failed To Make Count’ – having lost the last two away games against Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, not to mention previous draws against West Brom twice and West Ham at home earlier in the campaign, there was always that niggling feeling that today would not be their day.
As Liverpool defeated Man City 3-2 earlier in the day, Mourinho knew anything other than victory would hand the initiative to the Merseysiders in the title race. In response, Oscar and Eto’o came on for Ramires and Schurrle at the break. Willian was shifted out from behind the striker to wide right and Salah to the left, meaning Oscar and Matic in the middle and Eto’o up alongside Ba, resembling a 4-4-2.
The change seemed to lift Chelsea as they moved towards a more direct style with much more cut-and-thrust with 2 up top. Oscar could only bundle his chance towards Swans keeper Michel Vorm, though it came to him quickly. Seconds later, Ba flashed a near post header across goal before a spooned clearance from Ashley Williams could not be punished by Eto’o as Chelsea turned the screw.
Amidst the sustained pressure from the travelling Blues, City did have a few moments to put themselves ahead. Wayne Routledge embarked on a mighty run, with his shot hitting John Terry before bobbling wide.
Chelsea quickly re-established their base on the edge of Swansea’s 18-yard box, playing passes in front of the 8 or 9 shirts that were frequently found blocking the route to goal. However, the breakthrough finally occurred a few minutes later.
While Swansea had committed players forward, Matic collected possession before spraying a delightful 50-yard ball to the impressive Ba, who took it in his stride past Ashley Williams, before cutting back and powering home past Vorm. The home keeper should have done better, but there is a case for a minor deflection off the Swansea captain, sending it under the keeper and in the net for Ba’s 4th league goal this season.
He could have made it 5 not long after, with some strong hold-up play before firing over the bar. It was to be his last contribution before Mourinho brought on another peripheral figure in John Obi Mikel, clearly happy to shut up shop and take the 1-0.
There were several chances for Chelsea to put themselves out of sight, with the best of those chances falling yet again to Salah who was rather disappointing with his profligacy in front of goal.
Swansea were not done yet though, Ivanovic allowing Shelvey all the time in the world to curl a cross in towards the ever-troublesome Bony, who narrowly missed the ball which Cech could only awkwardly tip over the bar.
Eto’o had two late and very simple chances to finally put the game to bed but it proved not to matter as Chelsea collected all three points and moved to within two of Liverpool. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough. Win all their remaining games, and title will be heading back to SW6.