The young Portuguese tactician claims his first win as Blues boss, but will be far from impressed with a sluggish display which saw his side outplayed for long periods
Villas-Boas made two changes to the Chelsea side held at Stoke last weekend, with Hilario replacing the injured Petr Cech in goal and Nicolas Anelka preferred to Florent Malouda in attack, while Baggies boss Roy Hodgson stuck with the same starting XI which ran Manchester United close last time out.
The visiting fans may have travelled to west London fearing a repeat of last season’s 6-0 mauling at Stamford Bridge, but it immediately became apparent that this would be a completely different game.
Hodgson’s men began in confident mood, pressing high up the pitch in a bid to prevent Chelsea from penning them back inside their own half, with Shane Long and Somen Tchoyi looking to capitalise on any mistakes in the Blues defence.
Their positive approach yielded immediate dividends. Long picked the pocket of Alex just over the halfway line after a lazy pass by Ramires, shook off the defender’s desperate attempts to recover as he raced through on goal, and coolly slotted home past a helpless Hilario to give his side the lead with just four minutes on the clock.
The early goal rattled the Blues, but failed to shake them from their slumber. They continued to play with all the intensity of a pre-season game, and showed no signs of being capable of breaking through the Baggies’ massed defence. Salomon Kalou drifted dangerously in from the left wing, but his shot failed to test Ben Foster, instead sailing high into the stands.
Rather, it was West Brom who looked likeliest to score next, with the classy Chris Brunt at the centre of much of their attacking threat. The Northern Irishman found acres of space on the right flank before releasing Paul Scharner, whose firm drive stung the palms of Hilario.
Moments later, Hodgson’s men wasted an even better opportunity to double their lead. Brunt looped a sublime ball over the head of John Terry as both Long and Tchoyi broke a woeful Chelsea offside trap, but the former Reading striker’s attempted cross was too firm and denied his team-mate what would have been a simple tap-in.
Villas-Boas, visibly dismayed at his team’s performance, replaced the anonymous Kalou in favour of Malouda to try and inject some urgency in his team’s play, and the Blues responded with their first period of sustained pressure as the half drew to a close.
First Ashley Cole forced Foster into his first save of the match with a swerving 25-yard drive, and then Anelka had a decent penalty appeal turned down after being felled by the Baggies keeper.
Right on the stroke of half-time, Alex’s dangerous driven low free kick was redirected by Mikel, but straight into the grateful clutches of Foster. It was the closest Chelsea had come, but West Brom’s lead was richly deserved at the interval.
Fast start | Long took advantage of an Alex mistake to put his side ahead
Villas-Boas would have been fully entitled to give his players the hairdryer treatment before sending them out for the second half, but there was no visible reaction as, once again, it was the visitors who started more brightly, with Long and Tchoyi continuing to find space in and around the Blues’ back four with alarming ease.
But then, against the run of play, Chelsea found themselves level. Having again being denied a penalty when Lampard fell under pressure from Jonas Olsson, the ball broke to Anelka, whose low shot deflected off the Swede’s leg and rippled the net just inside the far post.
West Brom almost restored their lead immediately, with James Morrison’s hanging cross finding Scharner unchallenged at the back post, only for the Austrian to head over with the goal gaping.
But, by and large, Chelsea were now in the ascendancy, and only a good reflex stop from Foster and a heroic last-ditch block from Steven Reid denied first Anelka and then Malouda from putting the Blues ahead.
With half an hour remaining, Villas-Boas opted to withdraw the stifled Fernando Torres in favour of the more physical presence of Didier Drogba, and five minutes later replaced the pedestrian Alex with Branislav Ivanovic as he sought to make the match-winning breakthrough.
Chelsea seemed galvanised by the new arrivals, and camped themselves in the West Brom half, with Anelka, Drogba and Lampard all spurning decent chances.
The visitors were under pressure, a fact highlighted by Foster’s crazy decision to sprint 30 yards from his goal after Anelka had been released down the right flank. But the Frenchman chose to try and find the net with his first touch rather than rounding the onrushing keeper, and the opportunity was lost.
With seven minutes remaining, however, Chelsea at last broke their opponents’ resistance. Bosingwa jinked between two Baggies defenders and his accurate low cross found Malouda at the back post and the winger duly fired home.
Chelsea never looked entirely convincing at the back and the Stamford Bridge faithful were subjected to a couple of nervy moments towards the end, but the home side ultimately held on for a hard-fought win.