Chelsea turned on the style to annihilate Bolton Wanderers by four goals in what may prove a landmark victory for the defending champions. Despite looking very weak in the opening exchanges, Chelsea were inspired by a Didier Drogba thunderbolt in the 11th minute, and their hosts simply fell apart shortly thereafter. It had been several months since the Blues had last won away from Stamford Bridge, and they made a major statement here by crushing what had previously been a very good home team - Bolton had lost just once at the Reebok all season. They may not have played quite so well as the scoreline ultimately indicated, due to sequences of very poor play in the first half, but by the end of the match few could argue that Chelsea were not superior in every facet of the game than Owen Coyle's Wanderers.
Before the game began, there was a tribute to Bolton and England legend, who scored 255 goals for the club over a glittering career and continued working for the team up until until a few weeks prior to his death on January 15th. Mr. Lofthouse was 85. The moment of silence for the local hero was impeccably observed by the crowd, a testament to the respect he commanded throughout football.
Chelsea apparently decided to honour Mr. Lofthouse through ten minutes of silence on the pitch, too. They gave the ball away within ten seconds of kickoff and didn't get and sustained possession until at least four minutes had passed. Bolton pressed the visitors right up into their own penalty box, and there were at least four disastrously poor clearances by various Chelsea players in the first five minutes of the game. Only captain Kevin Davies, with what ended up being a tame header, seriously threatened Petr Cech's goal in the time period, but the writing was on the wall - Chelsea were toast.
Didier Drogba didn't get that message. After some sloppy play by Zat Knight put right back Gretar Steinsson under immense pressure, Bolton coughed up the ball in the middle of their own half. Florent Malouda played the ball back to Drogba, who found himself in space and 30 yards from goal. He shot. Mostly, when we've seen Chelsea shooting from long range this season, we've worried for the safety of the astronauts manning the space station, but this time the ball stayed low. It'd be incorrect to say the strike was true, considering it actually appeared to dodge out of the way of goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen's flailing hands, but it was certainly hit very very well. Suddenly, Chelsea had a 1-0 lead out of literally nothing, and the pressure started coming off Carlo Ancelotti's side.
It took a while for them to totally assert their confidence and were still a little prone to giving the ball away in the transition between midfield and attack, but some of the swagger crept back into Chelsea's game. The midfielders in particular looked like they were having fun - Ramires showed some quality on the ball by riding a pair of tackles only to shoot over, and John Obi Mikel threaded a brilliant ball through to Nicolas Anelka after stepping up to make a challenge on the halfway line only for the striker to lose the ball in the box. Michael Essien wasn't having his best match, and neither were Malouda or Anelka, but with Drogba making himself heard in the centre, a lot of the weight seemed to come off the team.
Of course, they had Petr Cech to thank for keeping it that way. The goalkeeper made a brilliant diving stop to deny Matt Taylor a headed goal following strong work by Martain Petrov down Chelsea's right, getting fingertips to a ball that had previously been destined for the bottom corner and diverting it past his left-hand post. That scare aside, Chelsea were looking defensively solid, with Mikel in particularly uncompromising form as he smashed aside Bolton's attacks.
With the centre of the pitch crowded by Blue shirts, about all the home side could do was play the ball down the flank and hope a good cross came in. In general, none was forthcoming, apart from in the early stages, and centre back pairing John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic were typically able to mop up fairly easily. Bolton did threaten again when Johan Elmander decided to hybridise a bicycle kick and scissor volley - he hit the ball hard and goalwards from eight yards, after a mis-hit clearance, leaving a bemused Cech rather rooted to the spot. Unfortunately for Bolton, the ball ricocheted straight off the goalkeeper and bobbled just wide for a corner kick, which was immediately cleared.
By the time Elmander had missed, however, Chelsea were two ahead. The Guardian's live text commentary described Florent Malouda's strike as an 'oh-it's-a-goal goal', and they were spot on there. Mikel had come up for a corner and after Bolton failed to clear their lines the Nigerian floated a rather strange cross to Malouda, who was faced with a crowd of defenders between him and Jaaskelainen's goal. He beet some of them with his feet, then went for a cross, but the ball was deflected off Gary Cahill's legs and straight back to the French forward - and the threat of a pass coming across his line had caused Jaaskelainen to chase phantoms. With the goalkeeper off balance, Malouda threaded a shot from an acute angle through three players and into the back of the net. It took a little while for anybody to realise the ball had gone in, save for Malouda, but eventually it dawned on Chelsea that they had a 2-0 lead and should probably celebrate a little bit.
By halftime, the possession statistics were reading Chelsea 60%-Bolton 40%, which was rather mindblowing when you factor in that Bolton had at least 90% of the play before Drogba scored. Chelsea had thoroughly outplayed the home team for most of the half, and while they might not have deserved to be two goals up they were certainly putting in a performance worthy of three points. Bolton, on the other hand, looked blunt up front and short of ideas in the middle, with the Fabrice Muamba/Stuart Holden central pair totally ineffective and the former lucky to get away without a yellow card after mauling Ramires twice in quick succession. Meanwhile, Mikel was seemingly controlling huge swathes of the field by himself. The only real criticism of Chelsea was a lack of width from their fullbacks, the lack of a wide outlet frequently frustrating the Blues, but with the team a goal up defence was always more important than attack for both Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa.
The second half kicked off for Bolton, and then they promptly fell apart even further. The team was absolutely dismal from the start of the second half through the 62nd minute introduction of youngsters Mark Davies and Rodrigo Moreno, and thereafter just mildly dismal. For the first 15 minutes of the second half, Chelsea had total dominance across every single area of the pitch, and they capitalised with a goal from Nicolas Anelka. Essien, who'd had a quiet first half, decided to take the game by the scruff of its neck, charging forward after Bolton had given the ball away in the centre circle. With Chelsea four-on-four against Bolton's back line, there was only one way the play would end, and Anelka found himself waiting inside the area for a cutback after Essien's run down the left flank. He got it and slotted home, although Jaaskelainen probably should have done better with his attempted save.
Matt Davies added some thrust to Bolton's attack but it was hardly threatening - Petr Cech's only save of note came from an Elmander shot that had already been blown dead for offside, and with the game over Chelsea were now breaking through Bolton's defence at will. Brazilian midfielder Ramires was having another good game after his brilliant performance against Blackburn Rovers, and he finally got the goal his work deserved in the 74th minute after Essien powered down the left and cut the ball back for Anelka. This time, the shot was blocked, but the rebound fell kindly for Ramires, whose sidefoot shot met Jaaskelainen's hand, then, the post, and finally the back of the net. Ramires was immediately substituted for Salomon Kalou, with Malouda moving into the midfield to accommodate the new striker.
There was still time for Chelsea to make noises about adding more goals, and with Josh McEachran in for John Obi Mikel their distribution got significantly more stylish. The 17 year-old wasn't the only blue-shirted player to be playing some gorgeous stuff, however, and Didier Drogba was by now in full-on cheat mode, playing backheeled passes and ridiculous flicks as though they were the easiest thing in the world. Cahill and Knight were barely able to deal with his power, and they looked absolutely lost whenever Drogba pulled something out of his bag of tricks on them.
Anyway, even Anelka had gotten properly into the game by the dying stages, and he was denied twice by Jaaskelainan in injury time - and once by referee Chris Foy after being unceremoniously bowled over in the penalty box by left back Paul Robinson. As we've seen before, the usual rules of the game don't apply when a team is 4-0 up and it's past the 85th minute, so a penalty wasn't given. Chelsea didn't complain too much, though - they were about to get three points in comprehensive fashion, move to within seven points of leaders Manchester United, and get some breathing room between themselves and Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League places. The bad moment was over, and the players were having fun.
The match ended after three minutes of added time with Chelsea on the attack and looking very dangerous. It was a fitting finish.