Blackpool at Bloomfield Road is a fixture that has caused several teams problems this year, but Chelsea were never particularly stretched in running out 3-1 victors here. In truth, the early stages of the match and a ten minute spell of the second half aside, the visitors never played particularly good football. They were slow, unimiginative, worryingly loose in possession, and looked for all the world like they were a side totally incapable of quick, incisive play. In other words, Chelsea never stepped up - but they never really needed to either.
With the Blues fighting it out with both Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City for one of the two Champions League berth not occupied by either Arsenal or Manchester United, Tottenham's 3-3 draw against Wolverhampton at the Molineaux meant that Chelsea could jump three points clear of Spurs in 4th place with a win against Blackpool. With key players DJ Campbell and Charlie Adam out of the picture for Ian Holloway's side, it looked as though that would be a bit of a formality, and, well, it was.
Chelsea fielded a flat 4-4-2/diamond hybrid which saw both wide midfielders tuck in very close whenever the ball was on the opposite flank. Three changes were made to the lineup that beat Manchester United a week earlier, with Yuri Zhirkov on the left, Jose Bosingwa at right back, and Didier Drogba pairing with Fernando Torres up front. David Luiz overcame a hamstring strain and was fit to start and Branislav Ivanovic dropped to the bench - the Serbian defender is on eight yellow cards for the season, which means a further two by April would see him receive a two game suspension (the reason Adam missed the match for Blackpool).
The Tangerines replied with a very defensive 4-5-1 featuring veteran striker James Beattie as the spearhead. David Carney and Jason Puncheon manned the flanks, with a midfield three of David Vaughan, Andy Reid, and Keith Southern, the latter primarily being used as a holding player to soak up Chelsea pressure in the centre. Ian Evatt and Alex Baptiste held the centre of Blackpool's defence together - a pair that's vulnerable at best.
With games at Bloomfield Road always featuring at least two goals this season, it looked like we'd see an open, attacking match, with the home side playing quickly through the centre (where Frank Lampard and Michael Essien were outnumbered) and Chelsea hitting back with attacks on the flank. That was true at the very beginning of the match, which was an enterprising affair with some interesting attacks conducted by both sides. In almost the first action of the match, Essien deftly flicked a Lampard free kick toward Richard Kingson's far post, but the ball somehow evaded both the goal and Fernando Torres' forehead, straining desperately to meet it.
Seconds later and Blackpool had replied with a shot on target, but Cech gobbled up Carney's long range effort without much problem, and then Chelsea broke forward in reply. It seemed as though nobody really have much of a clue on defence, and Lampard was exploiting some naive movement in the centre of the pitch to send the wide men on surging runs forward. Eventually, the pressure was going to pay off, and the Blues looked more likely to score than did their hosts.
Even before the opening goal Holloway was faced with a major problem. Torres' deft flick found Drogba striding into the penalty area, and the Ivorian made enough contact to put off Kingson, who was sprinting out to punt clear. The Ghanaian goalkeeper mishit the ball and then tripped over it, doing himself some damage in the process. Although he didn't come off, he spent the next five minutes being treated and was never particularly happy afterwards, leaving 21 year-old Mark Halstead, Blackpool's 4th string goalkeeper, warming up on the sidelines. It also had the effect of making the first half feel far shorter than it actually was - eating up five minutes of the first twenty will do that.
In the home fixture at Stamford Bridge, Salomon Kalou had put the Blues ahead inside of a minute from a corner, and Chelsea would take their lead in similar fashion here. With Kalou only on the bench, it was up to John Terry to wiggle in between the defenders and power home Lampard's inswinging delivery, with Beattie completely missing with a potential clearing header. Kingson had a chance of keeping the ball out, but it was low and at his feet and would have taken a frankly miraculous save to deny the Chelsea captain. None was forthcoming, and the visitors were up 1-0.
Chelsea have frequently gone to sleep with 1-0 leads under their belts this season, even before the terrible slump that all but wiped out their title chances in November, and they responded to their goal by... going to sleep. Zhirkov in particular became hugely profligate while on the ball, and Luiz had a bit of a nightmare in his one on one defending, possibly as a result to the hamstring injury he's carrying impacting his mobility. The Blues, then, were stodgy in possession, unable to get the ball forward or keep hold of it for any length of time - it's no wonder Fernando Torres cut a rather exasperated figure up front.
The width of the post was the only reason that Chelsea entered half time on level terms. A completely unnecessary Zhirkov backheel in the centre circle gave the ball straight to Jason Puncheon, who sprinted forward, skipped past David Luiz, and then sent a fairly tame effort towards Cech, who decided to make life a little more interesting by completely botching the save, the ball squirting free and then rolling against the post. Agony for Puncheon and Blackpool, massive relief for Chelsea, who despite deserving their goal were pretty poor value for being ahead at halftime. The midfield trio of Lampard, Essien, and Ramires had been effective enough, but Torres was totally starved of the ball and nothing Drogba or Zhirkov were doing really came off.
Not much changed at the break, and Chelsea continued to look poor while Blackpool started committing players forward in search of the equalising goal. It took some very brave defending for Terry and Luiz to keep them out, but it really did look like a matter of time before the Tangerines would level. Until, that is, an injury changed the game.
It would be silly to suggest that losing Didier Drogba makes the team better, but the events that transpired after the Blackpool corner kick in which Beattie collided with the striker's hip was certainly beneficial to the Blues. Drogba gamely carried on for a few minutes after a lengthy treatment, but was obviously not moving well and requested a substitution to the bench a few minutes later after pulling up limping in the middle of play.
Vaguely comedic scenes ensued on the sidelines, with Salomon Kalou and Nicolas Anelka fighting it out to see who would be the individual unfortunate enough to actually play football, and eventually Kalou emerged to take his compatriot's place. With Drogba off, Torres stayed closer to the centre while Kalou roamed around looking for the ball, while Zhirkov pushed up and Ramires drifted to the centre, making Chelsea's shape look rather a lot like the fluid 4-3-3 in which they've spent most of the season.
Within minutes, they'd not only seized control of the game but doubled their lead. Fernando Torres picked up the ball and slid a pass into the box for Kalou to race onto, whereupon the little forward was fouled by centre back Ian Evatt. It wasn't a bad foul, and Kalou went down very easily, but the fact remains that Evatt put in a challenge that completely missed the ball and instead took out the man - by the letter of the law that's a foul, and in the area that means a penalty. Frank Lampard didn't miss, and suddenly Chelsea looked home and dry.
Then another goal came, again through Kalou. With the Blues now matching Blackpool's three in the midfield, the centre of the pitch was far more open to them than it had been previously, and Essien was free to combine with Kalou to set up Lampard for a one on one with Kingson and an easy finish made it three nil. Lampard did have the option of squaring to Torres, who would have had an easy tap-in, but I don't imagine the striker would have thanked him much for the gift - the win and the goal are and were more important than personal glories. Meanwhile, Kingson had decided that enough was enough and made way for his backup, the first half injury finally getting the better of him.
Carlo Ancelotti deployed his last two substitutes, removing Zhirkov and, more surprisingly, Ramires for Florent Malouda and 18 year-old Josh McEachran. The first substitution was obvious, the second less so, but combined they had the effect of vastly weakening the team thanks to Zhirkov's willingness to track back and the hugely energetic presence of Ramires in the midfield. Neither Malouda or McEachran have the ability or inclination to truly hound the ball while out of possession, and although both players looked sharp on the attack these moves handed the initiative back to Blackpool.
It also didn't help that Jose Bosingwa decided to make everyone regret the fact that Braislav Ivanovic wasn't starting by essentially removing himself from the game. Blackpool substitute Matthew Phillips got the better of him with ten minutes to go only to roll the ball past Petr Cech's left-hand post, and the Portuguese right back was at fault for Puncheon's consolation, having been robbed by Stephen Crainey on the touchline and allowing Blackpool to start a four on two attack against Terry and Luiz. There was only ever going to be one outcome there, and Jason Puncheon cooly slid home to bring the host back within two, preserving Blackpool's record in scoring during every home match as well as making him the first Pokemon to score against Chelsea in their long history.
3-1 at 86 minutes would probably be considered too little to late by most, but there were several more chances for Blackpool to reduce the deficit further - John Terry denied Brett Ormerod with a crucial block of a goalbound shot and James Beattie nearly managed to fool the entire Chelsea defence as well as Petr Cech by coming within feet of converting at the post with the defence opting to let the ball run. It was the Blues though, who had the last major look at goal, with Malouda cutting through the defence with ease to set up Kalou, only for the striker to blaze harmlessly over the bar.
Fortunately, Chelsea were two goals to the good, so they won't be ruing their late miss or general poor play. It wasn't the best performance, but it didn't have to be against weakened opposition. Chelsea managed the win, got their three points, and are looking to make noise in the title race again. Nine points back with a game in hand isn't a particularly promising position for the side, but being on the very fringes of the title race is significantly more exciting than simply going for 4th place.