The chance was there to go top of the Premiership, but JFH seemed more intent on shooting at someone in row 35, so we dropped a place to third behind Arsenal and United. While there should be some disappointment at the result, Chelsea played like title-contenders in a wonderfully entertaining end-to-end battle at the Riverside.
Most would have expected a dour battle between the two best defences in the league, but neither side looked comfortable in their own penalty area, particularly ’Boro. In the first five minutes, when Chelsea enjoyed almost total possession, JFH could have had three goals as our slick passing tore apart the ’Boro back line. It looked inevitable that we would take the lead, but an atrocious decision from the ref resulted in a free-kick just outside the area for ’Boro and a travesty of a yellow card for Petit, who had clearly taken the ball in a tackle.
A dummy run at the free kick by the left-footed Quedreue made Cudicini hesitate and Geremi curled a perfect right-footer inside the post to give ’Boro an undeserved lead. Chelsea roared back and laid siege on the ’Boro goal. Zola almost instantly tied the game, but Schwarzer got his legs to his shot. ’Boro should have made it two when Nemeth crossed brilliantly to Maccarone who screwed the ball wide of the gaping goal. Then Lampard burst into the ’Boro box and sent the goalie the wrong way Only for the ball to clip Schwarzer’s hip and lift over the bar.
Finally, the equaliser arrived when a JFH corner kick bounced through the penalty area to Terry, who stabbed it home. We ended the half threatening to tear ’Boro apart with Gronkjaer’s speed causing heart attacks on the left side of their defence. His crossing was better than of late, but the ball would not bounce kindly for Chelsea. In the final seconds, Petit had a goal-bound header cleared off the line by Maccarone.
The second half was less wide open, although Chelsea continued to push forward on the break with Terry and Gallas keen to join in. This left us sometimes vulnerable at the back and a thumping Whelan header was fortunately straight at Cudicini. At the other end, Schwarzer was forced to save from JFH and Lampard. If ’Boro’s first goal was an injustice, the scales were balanced after an hour when Nemeth had a goal ruled out for offside. Replays showed he was onside.
We replaced our wide men — Stanic and Gronkjaer — with de Lucas and Zenden, and both sides started to look content with a point. We failed to go top, but the performance showed that we deserve to be one of the title challengers. There was no soft side in the cold surroundings of the Riverside and if JFH had showed half the form of his recent games, we would have been looking down on everyone else for at least 24 hours — and we have played two more away games than we have at the Bridge.
Everyone is waiting for us to collapse, but today was further strong evidence that we are in this for the long haul. The record shows we are the most consistent team in the league and wins in the next two games over Villa and Southampton might well be good enough to show that our surge to the top was only delayed on Saturday.
Cudicini: 6 — In the end, he did not have too much to do.
Melchiot: 7 — A solid game in which he got forward productively on occasions. ’Boro seemed keener to attack through Geremi on their right.
Gallas: 8 — Did not appear to put a foot wrong and was up against another speedster in Nemeth.
Terry: 7 — Captain for the day and he fitted right in, even keeping up the record of our centre backs scoring.
Le Saux: 7 — ’Boro pumped long balls in his direction all afternoon, but he was up for the challenge. Geremi was always dangerous, but he managed to just keep a lid on him.
Gronkjaer: 7 — You could almost see the brown stains on the ’Boro players’ shorts when he got the ball in space. Turned Quedreue inside out several times, but was never quite able to make the final killer pass. Shot for goal in the second half when a layoff to the charging Lampard would have created a great chance.
Lampard: 8 — Another strong performance from a man who can run all day. Made lung-bursting runs forward into dangerous positions all game and was very unlucky not to have at least one goal.
Petit: 7 — Broke up most ’Boro attacks and turned them into counterattacks. Had a header cleared off the line right after Terry’s equaliser.
Stanic: 6 — Did his best to control Geremi down our left and led several counterattacks. Unfortunately, his left foot was never up to making the final pass.
Hasselbaink: 5 — Seemed to work a bit harder than usual but could not do anything with his chances. One free-kick in the second half saw him send the ball 100 rows up and well wide.
Zola: 7 — He is not scoring these days, but it is impossible to imagine the little man not in the starting line-up. Created his great chance after ’Boro had taken the lead and had the ’Boro defence stretched for most of the afternoon.
Zenden: 5 — Still looked short of confidence and contributed little when he came on. If anything, left Le Saux a bit more exposed.
De Lucas: 6 — Some neat touches and kept our right flank solid.
Gudjohnsen: n/a — Not on long enough to make a difference.
Chelsea line-up: Cudicini — Melchiot, Gallas, Terry, Le Saux — Gronkjaer (de Lucas, 73), Lampard, Petit, Stanic (Zenden, 67) — Zola, Hasselbaink (Gudjohnsen, 83)
Subs not used: de Goey, Morris