Chelsea survived a late scare as Middlesbrough thrice hit the woodwork, but in the end Ricardo Carvalho’s fifth minute goal, his first of the season, was enough to give the Blues another valuable three points, as the title race reaches its climax.With Frank Lampard missing through illness and Petr Čech still struggling with his ankle injury, Avram Grant decided to make changes in defence and in midfield. Wayne Bridge and Juliano Belletti, both out of favour of late, returned, making their first starts since the infamous Barnsley cup tie. A midfield triumvirate of Michael Ballack, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel played behind the front three of Kalou, Drogba and Joe Cole.
Middlesbrough were missing former Chelsea favourite Robert Huth, the gigantic defender succumbing to a foot injury that saw him pull out of his first national team call up in two years. David Wheather, Boro’s other promising young defender, was in the lineup, alongside Emanuel Pogatetz, who captained the side. Lee Cattermole patrolled the midfield, whilst Tuncay was the lone forward, Afonso Alves left on the bench.
Three minutes in saw the first goalmouth action of the game as Drogba had a go from 30 yards. It shouldn’t have been too much trouble for Socceroos goalkeeper Schwarzer to simply collect the low shot, but he was all at sea as it hit his body before being cleared by his defence.
A minute later, Chelsea had the lead, one they would not relinquish. Ballack was fouled wide on the left, but rather than take the free kick himself, he left it for the recalled Bridge. Terry and Carvalho made their way up from the back, and it was the Portuguese defender who rose highest to head Schwarzer from 12 yards out. Bridge’s delivery was spot on, but Schwarzer’s reaction time very suspect.
Boro were stung by Chelsea’s early opener and looked to hit back through Stewart Downing, but the winger’s right footed effort was easily saved by the in-form Cudicini. Both sides were testing the depth of the water, with neither really willing to take the plunge and dive in.
It took until the 34th minute for the next proper piece of goalmouth action, Essien doing well to beat Boateng wide on the right before crossing into the box. Kalou at the back post eventually squirmed his way into space, but a combination of the defenders on the line and Mark Schwarzer, managed to keep out his eventual shot.
At half time, the score was 1-0 to Chelsea, a deserved lead after a decent half of football.
Ten minutes into the second half, a Juliano Belletti corner was cleared as far as Essien on the edge of the box, the Ghanian unleashing a vicious dipping volley that cleared the Boro goal by half a yard with Schwarzer scrambling.
On 64 minutes, Avram Grant and Gareth Southgate both made changes, Shaun Wright-Phillips replacing the tiring Michael Ballack in midfield, whilst for Boro, Dutch league goalscoring superstar Afonso Alves replaced the unproductive Tuncay.
Within a minute, Joe Cole had cleverly released Wright-Phillips, only for the England man to drag his shot across goal. Immediately afterwards, Salomon Kalou broke down the left and picked out Wright-Phillips again, only for him to blaze over the crossbar when well set on the edge of the area.
On 72 minutes, Boro should have made Chelsea pay for their wastefulness in front of goal. A long ball forward found space that Alves ran into, however Cudicini saw the opportunity to cut the ball out. Disastrously, the Italian keeper missed everything with his challenge and with space to pick his spot from 30 yards, Alves shot rolled into the post and back out into the grateful Cudicini’s arms. The miss jolted Chelsea back into action, as Wright-Phillips’ clever dink found the flying Kalou at the back post, only for Schwarzer to finally show some assurance in acrobatically tipping the ball over the bar.
Anelka and Johnson were introduced in place of Kalou and O’Neil respectively as the clock edged towards the final ten minutes. With nine minutes to go, Middlesbrough inexplicably failed to score a triple chance in the Chelsea penalty area. Alves headed a corner onto the bar, David Wheater then headed that rebound onto the bar also, before the third opportunity was blazed wide by Aliadiere.
Alex was sent on for Drogba to shore up the result, which Chelsea did, suffering no more scares. The win keeps Chelsea in second place and ensures that Middlesbrough remain winless at Stamford Bridge since 1975. Not pretty, but three points nonetheless for Avram Grant’s men, as our attention now turns to the midweek tie against Fenerbahce.
Chelsea (4-3-3) Cudicini; Belletti; Carvalho, Terry (c), Bridge; Essien, Mikel, Ballack (Wright-Phillips 64); J Cole, Drogba (Alex 89), Kalou (Anelka 77).
Middlesbrough (4-4-2) Schwarzer; Young, Wheater, Pogatetz (c), Taylor; O’Neil (Johnson 79), Boateng, Cattermole (Shawky 89), Downing; Tuncay (Alves 64), Aliadière.
Referee Phil Dowd