Chelsea show signs of hunger for title fight
Drogba penalty miss costs Blues maximum points but champions offer reminder of quality
What a crazy, compelling Premier League season. Just when everybody was organising a wake for Chelsea, the champions refound their resilience.
John Terry and company made a very significant point yesterday: dismiss them at your peril.
Only time will tell whether this was a turning point. Chelsea's next two games are Manchester United at the Bridge on December 19 and Arsenal away on December 27. Far from their forceful best, and with only one win in seven (their worst run since 1999), Chelsea still demonstrated why there is life in the old top dogs.
Chelsea are blessed with a redoubtable captain in Terry, a leader in word and deed, with an energetic left-back in Ashley Cole and with two subs in Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba who signalled the class they still possess. And what a crazy, compelling 45 minutes Drogba had.
He equalised Roman Pavlyuchenko's opener and could, really should have won it with an injury-time penalty. But what a mad, magnificent game Heurelho Gomes had. At fault for Drogba's goal, the Brazilian gifted the Ivorian his penalty chance by wiping out Ramires. Gomes then saved the kick. It shows how tight it is at the top that if Drogba had scored, Chelsea would have been first rather than fourth.
If Arsenal prevail at Old Trafford this evening, they go three points clear; if United win, they are two points ahead. The widely-peddled cliche that this is a league nobody wants to win is too negative an assessment; a more positive verdict is that five sides fancy their chances, sensing the fluidity of the situation.
If La Liga is a chase between two thoroughbreds, the error-strewn, hugely entertaining Premier League seems to be a five-horse race.
Tottenham's disappointment last night spoke of their heightened expectations. Harry Redknapp has engendered a belief in his players that they can compete for the major honours. If Gareth Bale has shone all term, the eye-catching return of Michael Dawson from ligament surgery added further credibility to their ambitions.
For all the Carlos Tevez anguish, Manchester City are patently not a one-man team as Yaya Toure, David Silva and Adam Johnson again proved at the weekend. Ominously for the rest, United are picking up speed, particularly with Wayne Rooney sharpened by his Stateside trip.
Arsenal boast Samir Nasri, arguably the best player in the Premier League this season. It is hard to recall when the Premier League was this open, certainly not since its nascent days when Nottingham Forest, Norwich City, Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa were pushing United.
Rumours of Chelsea's demise can certainly be discounted on this evidence. They were hardly outclassed in the first half, starting promisingly with a Nicolas Anelka shot here, a Florent Malouda dribble there. Michael Essien then tested Gomes with a snap-shot and a lofted drive.
There is still an uncertainty that stalks the champions and they conceded within 15 minutes. Chelsea felt Jermain Defoe was offside as he collected possession but nothing could forgive their lack of marking of Pavlyuchenko. Turning away from Terry and John Obi Mikel, the Russian went to his left, before angling a shot too easily past Petr Cech at the near post.
A degree of negativity flowed briefly through Chelsea.
Those of a suspicious nature might argue the visitors seemed to be targeting Bale. Essien caught him, earning a retaliatory rake from Pavlyuchenko. Paulo Ferreira then baulked Bale.
Chelsea pressed but Spurs stood firm. Dawson intercepted Malouda's free-kick with an imperious clearing header. Sebastien Bassong hooked the ball acrobatically away from Anelka. Wilson Palacios was like a high-class threshing machine, taking the ball off Ramires and Malouda in quick succession.
Chelsea needed a cutting edge, another avenue of attack. Lampard warmed up at the break to huge applause from the visiting faithful. Spurs' supporters regaled the England midfielder with chants of "you let your country down", which was slightly unkind, particularly as Lampard had just dealt politely with a request for a picture with a home fan.
Drogba was first to appear, injecting more focus and a goal threat.
Now this was more like the Chelsea of old, far more more assertive. When Malouda swung one ball over, Palacios' back-header was kept out only by a magnificent tip-over from Gomes.
Dawson then displayed his expertise, blocking balls from Malouda and Ashley Cole. "There's only one Michael Dawson" chorused the Spurs fans, receiving an appreciative thumbs-up in return. Dawson then nipped in to nick the ball off Drogba.
Their next meeting had a different outcome. Drogba controlled a high ball with his arm, according to Redknapp, or with his shoulder, according to those of a Chelsea persuasion. "Didier has big shoulders," argued Gianfranco Zola in the Sky studio. It's all relative.
However controversial the manner of his taming the ball, Drogba was still allowed too much room by Dawson. Gomes hardly covered himself with glory in dealing with Drogba's shot straight at him. The Brazilian's hands were too soft, the ball carrying over the line. Chelsea seemed inspired, Spurs rattled. Lampard charged on with 13 minutes remaining but still Terry set the tone, drilling one fine cross-field pass to Ferreira. Then came Gomes' moments of madness with Ramires and redemption with Drogba.
As Terry busily barked instructions to deal with a Spurs breakaway, Drogba was filled with remorse, twice holding up his hands in apology to the Chelsea fans.
Such was the error-filled entertainment on offer that a belting game ended with the Spurs subs all standing, all feverishly willing a Bale free-kick to find the mark, but it whistled over. And so to Old Trafford. An open title race threatens to become a classic. (© Daily Telegraph, London)