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Chelsea ride their luck to keep title flame alive

Chelsea's title defence had always felt tinged with desperation, an optimistic pursuit from what was once deemed a hopeless position; but now it feels fuelled with conviction.

A late win over bitter rivals here has moved the holders to within three points of Manchester United at the top, with a trip to the leaders to come next weekend. Alex Ferguson had left this arena 15 minutes before the final whistle; he may just have heard the raucous confirmation of Salomon Kalou's winner as he got to his car.

It even feels as if fortune is favouring Chelsea now. Their equaliser, pilfered on the stroke of half-time, was laced with controversy, with Tottenham Hotspur -- and television replays -- insistent that Frank Lampard's attempt had not crept entirely over the line after Heurelho Gomes's horrible handling error. That the goal was given deflated Spurs, with their own pursuit of the top four now looking desperate. For Chelsea, there is belief where previously there was only vague hope.

Tottenham, their pursuit of fourth place having stalled in recent weeks, had established an unlikely lead early on and could sense the half-time whistle was near when Lampard shot optimistically from distance. The ball may have swerved in flight, but it was still collectible, only for Gomes to allow it to slip through his grasp as he crouched to gather. The ball bobbled back, dribbling towards the line before he could paw it away with his right hand. Spurs were momentarily stunned, perhaps as much by the mistake as the resultant controversy, but the linesman Mike Cairns was already edging back towards the half-way line with the goal duly given.

Replays suggested the officials may have erred favourably on Chelsea's side, with the post blocking some views and the re-runs filmed from above suggesting Gomes had just recovered to ensure the ball was not completely over the line. Yet Spurs departed aggrieved, the balance of the game redressed and their early lead wrecked.

That, in truth, had been eked out against the run of play. Carlo Ancelotti had incorporated Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba into his favoured adaptation of 4-3-3, buoyed by the Spaniard's first goal for the club the previous Saturday, and there had been enough energetic zip to Chelsea's front trio in the opening exchanges.

Drogba had lashed a 35-yard free-kick on to the bar, via Gomes's fingertips. Spurs, their back-line makeshift and apparently vulnerable, appeared there for the taking. Yet Chelsea's concentration had wavered. Gareth Bale's throw-in was flicked on by Rafael van der Vaart for Sandro, evading Torres, to collect and conjure a blistering half-volley that ripped through Petr Cech's attempt to save. That was the 22-year-old's first goal for Tottenham following his £6.5m move from Internacional.

Sandro was overworked thereafter, shielding the rejigged back-line as best he could, even if Michael Essien and Torres might have clawed Chelsea level before Lampard did. There was a spikiness to the contest, Spurs content to hit on the break while the hosts summoned what energy and intent they could to conjure a winner.

Torres's withdrawal just after the hour-mark suggested Ancelotti had been ill-advised to change a winning side, even if Salomon Kalou's first touch as his replacement was to slice high and wide after Gomes, panic-stricken, had failed to deal with Drogba's free-kick. Yet the substitute would have his moment.

The game had entered its final 90 seconds when Lampard, Nicolas Anelka and Drogba combined as Spurs back-pedalled, with the Ivorian's shot squirting across the area. Kalou, in the six-yard box, had time to collect and steer home. The goal prompted a minor pitch evasion, the final whistle greeted soon afterwards with riotous delight. United beware at Old Trafford on Sunday; Chelsea's pursuit is gathering pace.


Sunday Indo Sport