Thursday 22 February 2018

Sturridge stars to get Chelsea in position for assault on top spot

Andre Villas-Boas does not come across as a man who would welcome any undue fuss for a birthday. He turns 34 tomorrow, but his present may well come in the week ahead. Chelsea meet the Belgian champions, Genk, on Wednesday, and then on a derby weekend are looking to close ground on at least one of the Manchester clubs as United and City lock horns while Chelsea drop in on Loftus Road.

Chelsea may not be in full swing yet, but they are in a very handy position. It must be comforting for Villas-Boas to be able to mould his team -- this selection did the business without the suspended Fernando Torres and the rested David Luiz and allowed for another cameo for Oriol Romeu -- while maintaining a 100 per cent success rate at home.

With a home record as powerful as Chelsea's in recent years, as well as all the heartstrings that are attached to the place, it is little wonder that the most traditional of fans are resistant to the idea of moving from Stamford Bridge. Following the club's noises about tying up loose ends in terms of housekeeping, fans outside the ground were leafleted. "If we lose this battle, the club can relocate ANYWHERE without any consultation with supporters," wrote the Say No CPO (Chelsea Pitch Owners) group, campaigning against the sale of the Stamford Bridge pitch.

On the pitch Everton have their concerns, too, but they did journey south with an excellent record at Stamford Bridge to embolden them. A run of five consecutive draws here gave them reason for confidence, and they duly began without inhibitions. They defended stoutly, and broke in numbers. In the 11th minute Louis Saha broke down the left and forced Petr Cech into a fumbling save, a sign that perhaps Chelsea were in for another uncomfortable encounter.

Early on Chelsea struggled to get a foothold, with Juan Mata switching flanks to try to make something happen, and Didier Drogba leading the line but without the power of his prime, potshots from distance from the unusual suspects such as Jose Bosingwa, Ashley Cole and Ramires. No danger.

All of a sudden, two slick passes changed everything. Frank Lampard switched possession to Cole, whose cross hung beautifully to allow Daniel Sturridge to arrive to nod Chelsea ahead from close range. His fourth goal of the season was greeted appreciatively in the Shed, who chanted "Sturridge for England".

In first-half stoppage time Lampard was the architect of Chelsea's second, with a perfectly flighted free-kick into the heart of the penalty area. John Terry bulldozed in front of Tim Howard to direct his header into the net.

Chelsea were brighter after half-time. Just after the hour mark they took the idea that Everton were a bogey team, screwed it up, and tossed it into a goal-sized bin in front of the Matthew Harding stand. Mata steered in a cross from the left, and Ramires took advantage of poor defending for another close-range finish.

Everton still found it in them to respond, when substitute Apostolos Vellios slid in a consolation with his first touch seconds after coming on.

They left here thoroughly defeated for a change, with a sequence of three straight defeats to mull over on the trip home.


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