Saturday 16 December 2017

Humdrum Blues keep one eye on Europe

Chelsea 1 Wigan 0

Florent Malouda scrambled a second-half winner. Yossi Benayoun and Alex came off the bench after lengthy absences through injury. And that was about it for Chelsea positives during another laboured performance by Carlo Ancelotti's team.

Catching Manchester United in the Premier League remains a very slight possibility but overtaking taking them in the Champions League is the priority and that reality was reflected in Ancelotti's team selection, with John Terry and Michael Essien omitted in order to keep them fresh for Tuesday's quarter-final second leg at Old Trafford.

Fernando Torres did not start either, although it is open to speculation as to whether that was to rest him or to prove that Chelsea are more dangerous without their £50m striker. No such conclusion could be drawn from this game.

Chelsea did start well and Didier Drogba tormented Wigan throughout. He nearly set up a goal in the opening minute, rampaging down the right and cutting the ball back for Frank Lampard, who mis-hit his shot from eight yards out, directing it towards Ramires to his left rather than at goal. Such was the Brazilian's surprise that he too botched his shot.

Chelsea, having reverted to the 4-3-3 formation which fell out of favour when Ancelotti started trying to tailor the team to suit Torres, were looking more coherent than they had done during their disjointed defeat to United in midweek. But that impression did not last.

Wigan pierced their defence easily in the 10th minute as Charles N'Zogbia ran unattended through the middle to receive Hugo Rodallega's astute pass. Luckily for the hosts, N'Zogbia was incorrectly called back for offside.

Drogba flicked on a Petr Cech punt and Malouda found himself face to face with Al-Habsi. The keeper foiled the Frenchman.

Lampard fired just wide from the edge of the box early in the second half and another Drogba free-kick was tipped over. Ancelotti introduced Benayoun and Torres in a bid to perk up Chelsea's attack and, in fairness, the Spaniard did make a difference, even if he did squander two decent opportunities to finally open his goalscoring account in his 13th appearance for the club.

In the 87th minute, he drove straight at Al-Habsi after being put clean through. A minute later, his attempted finish after neat interplay with Benayoun was more deft but this time the keeper denied him with a superb one-handed stop.

Those misses both came after Malouda's goal in the 66th minute. Inevitably, Drogba was involved in that. The impressive David Luiz met the Ivorian's corner at the near post and sent a looping header towards the back one.

Al-Habsi, under pressure from Torres, flapped at it and Branislav Ivanovic's attempt to bundle the ball over the line was thwarted before Malouda slammed it into the net from six yards. It was a scrappy way to settle a scrappy game and hardly enough to mask Chelsea's problems.


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