Florent Malouda struck seven minutes from time to get Chelsea’s season up and running with a more than welcome three points on Saturday evening. Having trailed from as early as the fourth minute the Blues struggled to overcome a resilient West Bromwich Albion side but second half goals from the French duo of Nicolas Anelka and Malouda proved sufficient for victory.
Andre Villas-Boas, in charge of the side at Stamford Bridge for the first time, made two changes from the side which drew 0-0 at Stoke last Sunday. Hilario replaced the injured Petr Cech in goal while Anelka was favoured ahead of Malouda by the Portuguese boss. The side retained the 4-3-3 formation it had adopted at the Britannia Stadium.
Last season Chelsea began their campaign at the Bridge with six consecutive clean sheets lasting until the middle of November. This time around they managed barely three minutes before conceding. Alex was caught napping on the ball by the hard-working Shane Long who pinched the ball off him before beating the Brazilian for pace and strength. His finish was equally adept, coolly slotting the ball past Hilario.
It took almost the entire half to awake Chelsea from their early-season slumber during which time they were fortunate not to go further behind. An incisive through-ball from Chris Brunt pierced Chelsea’s worryingly high defensive line – it certainly wasn’t the first time it happened – to release Long who raced clear. All it needed was an easy square pass to the unmarked Somen Tchoyi for the Baggies to double their advantage. Instead Long woefully overhit his pass and the opportunity was wasted; one which, by the end of the afternoon, was to prove costly.
Before that Paul Scharner had tested Hilario at his near post with a fierce drive, while Chelsea offered very little in the way of shots. Salomon Kalou, substituted on the half hour in a Mourinho-esque move by the new manager, cut inside from the left before firing over in Chelsea’s only real attempt on goal in the first forty minutes. Things did improve in that five minute period before the interval as the introduction of Malouda seemed to spark the team into life. First Ashley Cole brought the best out of Ben Foster with an excellent long-range strike before Alex nearly atoned for his earlier mishap with a deflected free-kick that Foster just about clung onto. In between Anelka was denied a penalty after being tripped by the Brom keeper.
Chelsea’s growing renaissance showed no signs of being impeded by the half time break and within seven minutes they were on level terms. Anelka weaved his way into the box and shot past Foster with the aid of a deflection, the ball angling perfectly into the far corner. Minutes later Anelka and Lampard linked up beautifully only for the former to be denied by the outstretched leg of the increasingly busy Foster, before Malouda’s follow-up was brilliant blocked by Steven Reid.
The chances continued to come. Substitute Didier Drogba, in place of the busy Fernando Torres, fired wide at the near post from a Cole cross. Anelka shot over when well placed. Tchoyi then reminded Chelsea of the Albion’s capabilities with a decent curling effort which was tipped wide by the flying Hilario. With the midfield pressing higher up the pitch following an earlier tactical change Chelsea were enjoying more possession – it seemed the diamond was the jewel missing in Chelsea’s crown after all. Anelka probably should have doubled his and his side’s tally with a quarter of an hour to go after Foster went AWOL – instead the Frenchman’s long-range shot dribbled frustratingly wide.
The sense of anxiety which had clouded Stamford Bridge since the third minute finally lifted with seven minutes remaining. Jose Bosingwa, out on the right and facing two defenders, knocked the ball in between them and sprinted past them with a devastating turn of pace. His cross was equally impressive, across the face of the goal and in between the defence and the goalkeeper. If Andy Gray were commentating, he would almost certainly have described it as ‘undefendable’. Malouda had the simple task of knocking the ball in at the back post and Chelsea led. If ever an assist really made a goal, this was it, and it was no surprise many of those in blue headed straight to Bosingwa to congratulate him.
A couple of tense moments later, notably a Peter Odemwingie volley which flew fortuitously straight into Hilario’s arms, and Chelsea had recorded their first three points of the 2011/12 season. Players, fans and manager alike looked relieved. This time last year we were romping to a 6-0 win and were dead certs for the title. Perhaps a slower start will prove that there are gaps in the squad that still need to be filled if we are to be anywhere near the top of the table come May.