Not quite the rout we'd all have wanted and never a particularly comfortable match, but Chelsea end up deserved 2-0 victors over Wolverhampton Wanderers on a sunny day in West London. While Jose Bosingwa returned to Stamford Bridge after more than a year on the sidelines, there was a less welcome comeback on the cards as well, with the notoriously brutish Stephen Hunt making his first appearance for the visitors after a long injury layoff. By the time Hunt saw the field, however, Chelsea were already 1-0 up thanks to Florent Malouda, and Wolves were forced to throw themselves at the home defence for much of the second half. Holding a one-goal lead doesn't always make for the most comfortable viewing, but Salomon Kalou made the points safe ten minutes from time, doing what Didier Drogba could not in finishing up a glorious chance of his own creation.
With the win, Chelsea go five points clear at the top of the league, with a goal differential of +23, a figure that matches the summed total of teams #2-6. While it's understandable that we might have expected the Blues to deal with their less illustrious visitors with a little more of a flourish, it's also to important to remember that Chelsea had just returned from Russia after a very tough Champions League fixture on the artificial turf of the Luzhniki Stadium. The team was tired beyond belief, and they got the job done against a side that tried to frustrate Drogba and company by parking 10 men behind the ball as much as they could.
The game didn't start in particularly auspicious fashion for the champions, with Wolves immediately seizing the ball and holding it for much of the opening five minutes. By the time Chelsea had any sustained possession, the visitors already had three corners under their belts, albeit with no clear cut chances to show for it. If anybody read the opening exchanges as an indicator of an exciting, back and forth half to come, they were sorely mistaken - Wolves' early promised proved quickly to be a false dawn.
Chelsea quickly locked down the game, using both flanks exceptionally well and breaking up Wolves attacks almost before they left their own half. Jose Bosingwa had the firm real chance, blowing through a couple of rather flimsy challenges to latch onto a fine through ball courtesy of Didier Drogba. Marcus Hahnemann was equal to the task, however, blocking the right-back's fine far-post shot with an outstretched leg. The Blues we having some difficulty in breaking down Wolverhampton's massed defensive ranks, and thus drew them out by inviting a couple of half-hearted attacks and pouncing when they inevitably won the ball back.
Mick McCarthy's men weren't undone by a counterattack, however, but rather some intricate passing work courtesy of Nicolas Anelka and Yuri Zhirkov on the right side, just after the half-hour mark. Anelka slipped a gorgeous reverse pass into the six-yard box for the Russian, whose sublime cut-back found Florent Malouda unmarked on the penalty spot. He made no mistake with his simple right-footed finish.
The rest of the half featured a number of chances for the Blues to extend the lead - Anelka and Drogba both went very close, while Wolves were reduced to long-range efforts whenever the Chelsea defence felt like letting them keep the ball. The game was firmly within Chelsea's grasp, and when half-time came around it looked as though a rout might still be on the cards. Kevin Doyle, playing as the lone striker, was totally isolated, and Wolves' wingers, Jelle van Damme and Matthew Jarvis, were so preoccupied by the threat Chelsea's fullbacks that they were able to offer virtually no support whatsoever in attack.
Wolves started the second half in much the same way as the first, throwing men forward and looking extremely composed in possession. The key difference, though, was their cutting edge in the final third. Michael Essien was forced to clear off the line just a few minutes past the kickoff, and for long periods Wolves really did have Chelsea under the cosh. They might well have scored one or even two goals but for a combination of luck and good work from Petr Cech, but at the other end Chelsea were taking advantage of the game opening up and looking exceptionally dangerous as well.
Drogba, who looked fairly rusty through most of the contest, was guilty of wasting a gilt-edge chance when sent one on one against Hahnemann, only to be tackled by the American goalkeeper outside the box, and Michael Essien was involved in the attack a few times, once curling a shot around the far post and also inadvertently blocking Malouda's goal-bound shot. Carlo Ancelotti was not best pleased by his side gifting Wolves with numerous scoring chances, despite Chelsea's attacking menace, and made some changes.
Salomon Kalou was introduced, replacing Malouda and slotting in on the right, and a tiring Jose Bosingwa was pulled in favour of the less exciting but certainly fitter Paulo Ferreira. Bosingwa had had a very promising afternoon, bombing repeatedly down the right flank and posing a real danger to the Wolves defence. His presence has been sorely missed in the Chelsea set-up, and this outing was immensely encouraging after a return from a long-term knee injury.
Another player who has been sorely missed is Frank Lampard, whose skill at timing runs into the penalty area would have helped the Blues immensely in their quest to secure the game with goal number two. Neither Essien nor Zhirkov are particularly well versed in the art of being a goalscoring midfielder, and many promising passes went to waste as the central players simply failed to make the correct run.
Kalou rectified this deficiency in the 81st minute, starting an incisive passing move involving Drogba and Essien before surging into the box and clipping an easy finish past Hahnemann to put the game out of the visitors' reach. With ten minutes left to play, Wolves were deflated and Chelsea were more than content to sit on their two-goal lead, passing the ball around nonchalantly for much of the rest of the game. There was still time for the Blues to be denied a penalty on what seemed like a clear handball in the box as well a few more vaguely threatening Chelsea attacks, but the game was over and the players all obviously knew it.
Lee Probert blew the whistle after three minutes of injury time to relatively subdued celebrations from the crowd. It wasn't Chelsea's best game of the season by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a very solid effort after some difficult games, and it's very difficult to argue against three well-earned points.