Blues win to boost title hopes

The champions beat Birmingham to become Manchester United’s closest

challengers, moving to within six points of the leaders and giving

themselves a glimmer of hope of retaining their crown. Once again

looking far more comfortable in their tried-and-trusted 4-3-3

formation, Malouda and Salomon Kalou scored brilliant first-half

goals, and the former struck again before Sebastian Larsson netted

a consolation from the penalty spot. Chelsea therefore capitalised

on United’s failure to win at Newcastle yesterday and, with a trip

to Old Trafford to come, there is a slim chance they could yet

snatch the title. Realistically, though, they would need to win all

their remaining games and, on the evidence of Wednesday night,

their best chance of doing so would be sticking with Drogba,

Malouda and Kalou up front. The failure of Fernando Torres – who

came off the bench to extend his goal drought to 893 minutes – to

earn a recall was significant as it was the first time he had not

started after being on the bench in the previous match. Carlo

Ancelotti, who last week appeared all but resigned to losing his

job, had clearly decided the disparity between his form and

Drogba’s was too severe to ignore. With square pegs in square

holes, it took Chelsea’s front three less than three minutes to

unlock Birmingham with a super goal. John Terry sprayed the ball

wide to the recalled Paulo Ferreira, whose cross was flicked on by

Drogba for Malouda to crash home. Birmingham goalkeeper Ben Foster,

who had proven unbeatable in the reverse fixture at St Andrew’s,

almost fumbled Drogba’s 25-yarder into his own net and was nearly

chipped by the resurgent Ivory Coast striker. Kalou was also not

afraid to try his luck and produced a magnificent second goal in

the 26th minute, turning away from Roger Johnson, side-stepping

Stuart Parnaby and unleashing an unstoppable 20-yard shot into the

corner of Foster’s net. Players were taking regular drinks breaks

on what was a sweltering evening at Stamford Bridge. But it was the

visitors’ defence which was feeling the heat as Drogba’s snapshot

forced Foster into a fingertip save, Kalou nodded over the bar,

Foster saved Lampard’s tame effort and Michael Essien hooked wide.

Birmingham’s first-half chances fell to Cameron Jerome, whose

Premier League goal drought stretches back to November. The striker

saw one effort tipped wide by Petr Cech and also saw a shot on the

turn blocked after being set up by Alexander Hleb, who was handed

his first start for two months despite saying this week he did not

want to stay at the club when his loan expires. Parnaby earned what

proved the game’s only booking for bringing down Kalou shortly

after the restart, with Essien seeing his header from Drogba’s

resulting free-kick deflected behind. Chelsea began to get sloppy

and Johnson headed a corner just wide before Cole was replaced by

Ryan Bertrand, the 21-year-old finally earning his debut after a

career spent out on loan. The newcomer took less than six minutes

to make an impact, Malouda rising to head home his 62nd-minute

cross unchallenged. Torres had been warming up in the meantime and,

with the game won, he and Nicolas Anelka made their entrance in the

67th minute, replacing Malouda and Kalou. The remainder of the game

became about whether Torres could end his 870-minute goal drought

for club and country, 701 of them in a Chelsea shirt. “He’s gonna

score in a minute”, the Chelsea fans sang about their

£50million man. But it was Birmingham who got the next goal

thanks to the latest in what is becoming an alarming collection of

rash challenges from David Luiz. The Brazilian clearly tripped

substitute Matt Derbyshire and, after snatching the ball from

team-mate Craig Gardner, Larsson stepped up to score. Derbyshire

also dragged wide after Anelka lost the ball in midfield. With five

minutes remaining, Larsson was penalised for a backpass but Drogba

refused to give Torres the chance to break his duck, duly blazing

the indirect free-kick over the bar.