If this doesn’t open Roman’s wallet again, then nothing will. Two points dropped against a massively depleted Birmingham team is as big a signal as there is that Chelsea are nowhere near the finished articles.
Certainly we suffered as much bad luck in this game as you can get, but the fact is that we shouldn’t be relying on fortune for three points against teams such as these.
A Joe Cole shot after 19 minutes came back off the post and then a Gallas flick was brilliantly cleared off the line just after half time. If either of those had gone in you felt that we would be looking at another multi-goal victory.
But 1-0 victories seem scarce these days after being commonplace early in the season, and our frustration was obvious as the yellow-shirted defenders worked themselves into the ground to earn a point.
Strangely, Birmingham came to play with two strikers despite ample evidence that we struggle against five-man midfields. Ranieri chose to go with Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen up front after their sterling performance at Leicester and the midfield was as expected with Duff on the bench because he was short of match practice. Bridge came in for Africa-bound Babayaro and Johnson was preferred to Melchiot at right back. Gallas and Desailly were in the centre with Terry out with a groin strain.
It was a stuttering start, with Birmingham seeing more of the ball, but we looked dangerous in and around the opponent’s area.
Hasselbaink wasted a free header in the centre of the goal area before Cole produced a nifty run and wonderful curling right foot shot that rebounded off the far post with Taylor rooted to the spot.
No worries. You just sensed that Birmingham were going to be broken down even if Jesper Gronkjaer was showing no enthusiasm for getting to grips with the hard-tackling City defenders.
Even at half time, there were few worries, especially when Ranieri brought Duff on for Gronkjaer, our first half passenger.
The second half opened in sensational fashion with chances at both ends within two minutes of the restart. Chelsea hearts were in our mouths when Cudicini cleared a low ball into the goal area with his feet. The loose ball lay invitingly in the area but somehow Makelele contrived to allow Savage around him for a shot that screamed wide of the gaping net.
At the other end, Birmingham’s Tebily pulled off the defensive play of the season to keep the scores level. Taylor failed to reach a cross that was nodded down to Gallas on the penalty spot with the goal wide open. The ball was bouncing awkwardly but Gallas will have wished he flicked the ball with more authority. It floated towards goal in a gentle arc and was coming down in the middle of the goal when Tebily slid in to hook the ball clear as it bounced on the line. Astonishing. From the corner, Gallas appeared to be tripped by Tebily but referee Winter ruled it was an accidental tangling of legs. Many referees would have given a penalty.
The blue wind died down and Mutu came on for Cole and instantly we launched wave after wave of attacks on the beleaguered City goal. Steve Bruce finally withdrew a striker for another midfielder and we were now up against our usual nemesis, the five-man midfield.
We were running out of ideas, but still the chances came and went. A brilliant diagonal ball from Mutu picked out Hasselbaink who fired the ball against Taylor’s ankle as the goalie advanced and hoped. Lampard finished a wonderful run into the box with a low left-foot shot, which Taylor brilliantly put around a post. Then Gudjohnsen burst into the area and was clipped off balance just as he shot, sending his blast wide from close in.
It was one of those days, again. We could not break down a packed defence and paid for our failings by falling six points behind Arsenal. Duff may be the key but today he looked desperately short of match fitness.
We’re not out of the race, but unless we find a way through teams packing their goal mouth we will fall further behind.