After the events of midweek, Chelsea might have been forgiven for going totally off the rails against perennial troublemakers West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. After all, a match against the Baggies had proven the end for both Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo, and with Rafa Benitez teetering on the edge of (further) insanity the time was looking right for another annoying upset.
So instead the Blues more or less dominated the match and finished up with all three points. It was a weird win -- despite being quite clearly the better side, Chelsea managed just a solitary goal which led to a too-close-for-comfort finish, all against the backdrop of an intensely anti-Benitez / strangely muted atmosphere* depending on whose account one prefers.
*An aside: Both descriptions are right, sort of. The protest against Benitez was probably about as loud as it's been since the 0-0 draw against Fulham, his first game as interim first team coach, but for those who haven't been paying attention to the goings on at Stamford Bridge, a group into which I must regretfully lump the international media, it would have seemed disappointing compared to the bombastic buildup that the less-informed decided to provide us with.
Chelsea got off on the right foot, nearly going ahead four minutes in after splendid work from Demba Ba. The striker, who was embroiled in a seven-match long goal drought, worked himself into space on the right and sent in a raking cross for Oscar. The Brazilian managed to evade the attentions of a curiously slack West Brom defence and met the ball with a stinging sidefooted shot.
Sadly, it was aimed straight at Ben Foster, which meant an early, confidence-boosting lead was not to be. Juan Mata then tried his luck with a snapshot that spilled just wide before the visitors replied with their only meaningful effort of the half, a long-range free kick from Stephen Reid that swerved viciously and forced Cech to punch over the crossbar.
After the Reid effort, it was back to normal service. Another cross was served to Oscar on a very attractive plate, this time by Mata, but again the youngster's effort was hit straight at the goalkeeper. Ba decided to ensure that Oscar didn't feel left out from Foster's catching practice a few minutes later, which was nice of him.
But although the front men's inability to cash in on their opportunities was annoying, the fact that Chelsea were carving out chance after chance without ever really surrendering the ball was promising indeed. Matters finally came to a head when Claudio Yacub fouled Oscar on the left with 26 minutes gone.
David Luiz's deflected blast was parried behind for a corner, but the threat wasn't over, and the curly haired defender managed to latch onto Mata's deep cross and nod the ball back into the danger zone. The West Brom line and Foster has attempted to close down David Luiz, anticipating a header on goal, and were totally unprepared for the pass, leaving Ba to react first and sweep home.
It was slightly surprising that Chelsea didn't finish the first half with more goals. They certainly created more chances following Ba's strike -- a double block on Oscar and then Cesar Azpilicueta after a mess in Foster's box being the most obvious -- and the Baggies were barely able to escape their own half. This had the flavour of a rout but without the accompanying scoreline, and that was always going to make for a nervous second half.
That said, the Blues did manage to get the ball into the back of the net twice after the interval. Frank Lampard was denied his double century thanks to Mata being extraordinarily offside before Branislav Ivanovic had a strike ruled out for a cheekily-early taken free kick. And they threatened Foster by legal means as well, with the England keeper forced into two good stops from Oscar, who could have had five goals on another day.
But they still couldn't score, and that set the stage for a West Brom fightback as the end drew closer. For the first hour, the visitors had only managed two shots in the vague direction of Cech's goal -- the Reid free kick and a somewhat more speculative (and subsequently semi-orbital) drive off the boot of James Morrison, but following the introduction of Peter Odemwingie, Steve Clarke's side grew ever-bolder.
Cech was called into action twice in quick succession as the game wound down, tipping over a powerful free kick from Odemwingie before being forced into a scrambling save when Azpilcueta turned into his own net. Chelsea were getting opportunities on the break, but they were spurning them. Victor Moses and Fernando Torres, on for the excellent Eden Hazard and Ba respectively, should have done better on the ball, but ultimately it was a matter of simply holding on for the Blues.
Despite West Brom controlling the game, however, they couldn't find a way past Cech. And so Chelsea managed to survive a match in which they'd blown away the opposition for seventy minutes and then had a minor meltdown at the end. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I'd prefer a more resounding victory next time, ok?