Chelsea snatch late winner to tighten grip on first place

Ian Walton

It could have been a John Terry goal. It could have been a Frank Lampard goal. And it could have been a Tim Howard goal. Right now I don't think anyone much cares. One of that heroic trio delivered Chelsea a 93rd-minute winner against Everton, and the points are what matter, not the scorer.

There's no better feeling than a late, late win, especially in a game as important as this one. For 92 minutes, Chelsea looked like they were once again set to disappoint. Since the turn of the year, the Blues have been magnificent as long as they weren't at any risk of going clear at the top of the table. But three times they've played with a chance to either go top or extend their lead, and they've won only one of those matches.

The visiting Toffees presented the chance to extend our lead on Arsenal, at least temporarily, to four points. And so, naturally, the match was an exercise in frustration. Everton are an extremely good side and they did very well to frustrate us through the middle in the first half. Gareth Barry and James McCarthy kept Oscar so quiet that the Brazilian was hauled off at halftime by a less-than-pleased Jose Mourinho, but he wasn't the only one having a quiet afternoon.

The funny thing is that Chelsea started brightly, with Samuel Eto'o and Eden Hazard linking up well in the early stages. Everton were more than happy to commit Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman forward, giving Chelsea space to attack the visitors down the flanks. But that's not how it worked out -- instead it was said fullbacks who were the dominant attacking force of much of the first half.

Which isn't to say that the Toffees were that threatening. Leon Osman had a long-range shot tipped over by Petr Cech, and both Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta chipped in with key clearance as they kept the likes of Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith at bay. At the other end of the pitch, we were creating essentially nothing. Eto'o had an angled shot kept out by Howard, but other than that we were mostly treated to speculative and rather feeble long-range shots.

Ramires was Oscar's halftime replacement, Chelsea shifting to a 4-3-3. The move paid immediate dividends in terms of controlling the game -- never again would we look completely shackled -- but for a long time it looked as though Howard was going to single-handedly keep us out. The American international saved superbly from Lampard in the opening minutes of the second half, and followed that with a fantastic double stop from Hazard and then Ivanovic.

At the other end we weren't totally safe, as Cech's scrambled save against Osman after his scudding effort took a wicked deflection off Mirallas would attest, but that was about as good as it got for Everton. Despite the mounting Chelsea pressure, Roberto Martinez continued to search for a winner, throwing on Gerard Delofeu and Aidan McGeady; Mourinho replied with Fernando Torres and Andre Schurrle, the former proceeding to spread terror amongst the Toffees defence by kicking everyone in sight. At one point he managed to commit a foul by kicking the football, which, Lee Probert or not, is a pretty impressive feat.

Speaking of Probert, he'd annoyed the home fans a couple of times by ignoring Phil Jagielka's novel defensive strategy of touching the ball with his hands inside the box, but he was, at least, an equal-opportunity annoyer, putting in a display that made just about everyone who watched it angry. His inept performance made his injury-time decision seem more contentious than it actually was. Jagielka hacked down Ramires in a dangerous position, and despite Everton's protests it was a rather clear foul.

And so we come to the goal. Lampard whipped in the free kick, and neither Jagielka nor man-of-the-match Sylvan Distin bothered chasing his delivery. Terry, meanwhile, did, running at the ball just where it was bouncing in front of Howard. The captain probably didn't get a touch, but he did enough to ensure that Howard couldn't gather cleanly, spilling the ball into his own net to give the Blues a very late lead, a fine reward for all the late pressure.

A couple of dangerous set pieces later, Probert blew for full time. No points dropped here!

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