Saturday 25 February 2017

Glum Ancelotti forecast proving all too accurate

Birmingham 1 Chelsea 0

Carlo Ancelotti will take no pleasure from seeing his prediction come true.

The Chelsea manager reminded everyone, after a third defeat in four matches that he forecast a month ago, that when his players were sweeping opponents aside and looking untouchable at the top of the table, there were more difficult times ahead. Whether the Italian could have imagined three defeats in four matches, however, is quite another matter.

This latest setback was nothing like as damaging as the humiliating defeat at home to Sunderland a week ago, but it was, all the same, another sobering afternoon for the champions. Ancelotti claimed his players will win the league if they reproduce the same level of performance over the remainder of the season, but what the Chelsea manager omitted to mention, as he reflected on his side's dominance against Birmingham, was that his players need to remember how to put the ball in the net.

For the fifth time in their last nine league games, Chelsea failed to score, and it is beginning to feel like a trick of the mind that the goals were flowing so freely for them earlier in the season. Chelsea were certainly not without their chances -- they created at least 10 decent opportunities -- but a combination of wastefulness, the woodwork and, most significantly of all, the outstanding form of Ben Foster helped Birmingham to record their first league win over Chelsea in 30 years.

Chelsea remain top of the table, ahead of Manchester United on goal difference, but there is a sense that things are unravelling on and off the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Ancelotti dismissed any suggestion that the furore surrounding Ray Wilkins's dismissal was affecting his players, but it is impossible to ignore that Chelsea have suffered back-to-back league defeats for the first time in four-and-a-half years in the wake of the assistant manager's sudden departure.

The only goal of the game arrived in the 17th minute, when Lee Bowyer punished some poor Chelsea defending to score his first of the season. The anticipated Chelsea onslaught followed but, not for the first time in recent months, Ancelotti's players were unable to peg opponents back. This was the 11th time in 12 matches that Chelsea have fallen behind and ended up losing, a damning statistic that says little for the players' powers of recovery.

"I was a good magician because one month ago, when everything was OK, I said a difficult moment will arrive. It's arrived and we have to be able to move quickly on," Ancelotti said. "We didn't win because I think we were unlucky. I don't have to say nothing to my team because everyone showed good spirit, good attitude and wanted to win."

On another day, Didier Drogba would have scored a hat-trick. He was clean through in the sixth minute but Foster denied the Chelsea captain, and the Birmingham goalkeeper produced an even better save moments later, when he instinctively saved a point-blank header from the striker. Next up was a vicious free-kick from Drogba that Foster turned around the post before the Ivorian headed Florent Malouda's centre against the bar.

Salomon Kalou, Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic also had chances to bring parity but none of the Chelsea players were able to show the same ruthless finishing Bowyer demonstrated in the first half. Running onto Cameron Jerome's knock-down from Sebastian Larsson's deep centre, Bowyer made the most of the freedom Chelsea afforded him and clipped a half-volley over the advancing Petr Cech. "A trademark Bowyer run," beamed Alex McLeish.

The Birmingham manager described Barry Ferguson as "imperious", although he also admitted Chelsea controlled the match from start to finish. "We had to defend stoutly. They had all the ball and some good chances," said McLeish, whose side moved from the relegation zone to 12th place. "We got a wee bit of luck but we've had games this season that we deserved to win but didn't."

At least Arsenal's result, which saw the Gunners miss the chance to top the table, provided Ancelotti with some consolation. "It's a strange Premiership because there are a lot of opportunities to improve the gap [at the top]," he said. "We are losing the opportunity but other teams are [doing the same]. It will be a long race and it will be more difficult compared to last season."

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