A solitary goal from Florent Malouda helped a Chelsea side enduring their worst Premier League run for eleven years to a narrow win against Bolton Wanderers at a subdued Stamford Bridge. In an underwhelming performance – particularly a fairly abhorrent first-half – the influence of elder statesmen Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba amongst others just about helped the home side grab the three points, when for such an agonisingly long period of the game, it appeared as if they deserved nothing.
Following the Arsenal debacle on that forgettable Monday night, Carlo Ancelotti made three changes to his starting line-up, with Paulo Ferreira, John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou shown the subs bench instead, replaced by José Bosingwa, Ramires and Nicolas Anelka, the latter playing against one of his former clubs after missing the match against another of his old teams, Arsenal, through injury.
However, if the under-pressure Italian manager thought that shuffling his pack would reap instant rewards, he was sorely mistaken. With the troublesome Kevin Davies keeping the Chelsea backline busy in the opening exchanges, Bolton stopper Jussi Jaaskelainen was rarely tested at the other end. In fact, by the time the half-time whistle was blown, the Trotters’ kitman must have been anticipating one less jersey to wash, with the bright orange goalkeeper shirt barely splattered with mud from the sodden turf, such was Chelsea’s lack of creativity and ultimate profligacy in front of goal.
A remarkable free-kick by Drogba summed up the way things have been going for the Ivorian, and Chelsea as a whole; just outside the box but at an angle, the striker would have been expected to hit a shot on target, instead his miscue sent the ball flying dangerously towards the West Stand, eventually leaving the pitch for an unexpected Bolton throw-in.
Bolton’s attacks were somewhat more worrying, with Matt Taylor screwing a shot wide after a mistake in the box from Bosingwa, and the in-form Johan Elmander running through on goal only to be hauled back by Branislav Ivanovic, who picked up a fifth booking of the season and a subsequent suspension – missing Sunday’s Aston Villa game – for his foul.
The half-time whistle was almost drowned out by vociferous murmurs of discontent from all corners. Seemingly, nothing had changed from the previous match against Arsenal, other than the fact that Chelsea had managed to keep a first-half clean sheet this time. The defence was sturdy enough, bar the odd lapse in concentration, but the attack was blunt and unimaginative.
Thankfully, the second-half started with a moment of inspiration which restored a little faith. Lampard – still waiting to hit his stride after several months on the sidelines – hit a gorgeous through-ball right into the path of Drogba, slicing through three or four Bolton players with one pass. Drogba’s side-footed finish was all but in for 1-0, but the sprawling Jaaskelainen got enough of a finger to the ball, diverting the shot onto the post before Zat Knight cleared. Both Drogba and the kitman were left bemoaning their luck.
Michael Essien and Taylor had further half-chances, before the former turned provider instead. Surging through the midfield, another fantastic through-ball found Drogba, running in on goal. Instead of testing Jaaskelainen this time, however, he was patient, waiting for the onrushing Malouda on his left and sliding the ball across into the Frenchman’s stride. No matter how dismal his recent performances have been, Malouda couldn’t miss, slotting into an empty net. The celebrations were poignant, with an explosion of relief by players, coaches and fans alike.
Bolton attempted to hit back, with a few chances troubling the Chelsea defence. Petr Cech instinctively tipped over a close-range header from Stuart Holden before the following corner wasn’t dealt with by the Czech ‘keeper, with Drogba on hand to clear a shot from almost his own goal line.
Essien then fired wide with a powerful effort while both he and Ivanovic went close with headers. Frustratingly, several counter-attacks in the closing stages of the match saw the lively Ramires making dangerous – and unmarked – runs through on goal, only to be completely ignored by his teammates. The Brazilian was improved, if not yet the complete package in the Chelsea midfield.
Following brief cameos from Ferreira and Kalou, the full-time whistle caused another ripple of release around the Bridge. So this is what winning feels like. Was it pretty? Was it heck. But three points and a 1-0 win are exactly what is expected after a seemingly endless run of misfortune, incompetence and ineptitude. It may not be enough to quell the poison pens and sharp tongues, but it could just be the prelude to the renaissance.