Drogba dispatches Wolves
Wolverhampton 0 Chelsea 2
Chelsea's chief executive Ron Gourlay gave his players a 10-minute lecture last week, reminding them to be on their best behaviour.
His briefing had a whiff of the stable door about it, but at least Chelsea were dignified and business-like in disposing of Wolves yesterday.
Two chances. Two goals. Clean sheet. Job done.
The win took Chelsea four points clear at the top of the league, yet it was never commanding. Presented with a glorious opportunity by Manchester United's lunchtime stumble, they started out in curiously lackadaisical mood. The virus afflicting Frank Lampard, who usually brings teeth to the midfield, allowed Wolves to harry and disrupt.
There were hardly any moves of more than a few passes, while Joe Cole's chances of a summer move to Manchester United cannot have been helped by another insipid display.
And yet, despite suffering a power failure in the middle of the park, Chelsea could fall back on a dynamo named Didier Drogba. Football's raging bull had one of his less demonstrative matches, poaching his goals without flourish when he usually flames them in from 30 yards.
But his statistics are compelling: 25 goals in all competitions now, and six in the last five games.
It may sound simplistic, but the battle for the Premier League looks increasingly as if it can be boiled down to a strikers' shoot-out: Drogba v Wayne Rooney. There is no doubt who came out on top this weekend.
Wolves fielded the same team on Saturday that beat Tottenham a fortnight ago. This had little to do with the threat of a £25,000 fine if they rested first-choice players, as they did against Manchester United earlier in the season. Chelsea had won just one of their previous six games away from home, and as Mick McCarthy said in midweek, the top teams have been looking increasingly vulnerable.
While Kevin Doyle made a threatening frontman, Wolves' back four held the line manfully, and they had almost made it to half-time when their cover was finally blown by an elegant move down the left. Yuri Zhirkov, who is one of the few people to benefit from Ashley Cole's misfortunes, exchanged a precise one-two with Michael Ballack, before dinking the ball across the six-yard box. Drogba was there to finish, sliding in at the far post.
Even McCarthy, rarely the most loquacious of managers, admitted that "there was a lot of quality in their first goal, a lot of quality". Despite his lugubrious manner, McCarthy must have managed something rousing at half-time because Wolves came out more strongly than their opponents.
First Adlene Guedioura hit a dangerous volley from the right side of the box, which Petr Cech smothered, and then the Wolves fans enjoyed their most satisfying moment of the match: an embarrassing mis-kick from John Terry. It would have been even better if Kevin Foley, who found himself presented with a golden chance, had managed to beat Cech from 10 yards.
After his extravagantly stage-managed marital reunion in Dubai, Terry had been taking some terrible stick from the crowd. They started the game by chanting 'Same old Terry, always cheating,' before moving on to 'You should have squired Cheryl Cole' (or something along those lines).
The attention seemed to get to him, because he was well short of his usual assured self, as that terrible miscue demonstrated. At least he reacted well to the error. As Cech blocked the first shot, and Karl Henry stumbled over the follow-up effort, he was back on the line to clear the danger. Who needs live editions of EastEnders when you've got the John Terry show?
Chelsea's clincher came on 67 minutes, when Christophe Berra misjudged the bounce of a Cech clearance and let Drogba have his way. "It was dire," said McCarthy later. "We had the game by the scruff of the neck by the second half when Cech made two great saves, and they were taking the sting out of the game.
"But then we gave away a really bad goal, and we might as well have packed it in then, because it demoralised us. I am not lambasting the display; it was good. But we let them off the hook, and 2-0 is not the story of the game."
As Chelsea relaxed, their manager Carlo Ancelotti even produced a stylish flick of his shoe to bring the ball under control on the touchline.
"We went into this game knowing we had the chance to improve our position after the Manchester United result," he said. "The players were aware United had lost, and we managed to take advantage of the situation.
"We didn't play that well, but we had a good spirit, battled for every ball and deserved the points. But there will be a lot of games between now and the end of the season, and nothing is decided at this moment. There are still a lot of points to play for."
But a better performance will be needed on Wednesday if they are to deal with Inter Milan. Sometimes you have to do more than just stay out of trouble.