By Wayne Veysey at Stamford Bridge
As the rain continued to drive relentlessly across a sodden Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea players finally bathed in the warm glow of victory over a Premier League high flier.
Hugs and jubilant grins were exchanged in a post-match group huddle between the wearers of the sopping blue shirts, and so unrestrained were the celebrations that Roberto Mancini remarked on how they spilled over afterwards into the tunnel. He pointed his finger directly at serial offender Ashley Cole.
Defeats against the heavy artillery of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool (twice) had brought doubt and disappointment to Andre Villas-Boas’ squad.
But six days after disposing easily of Valencia to secure a passage to the last-16 of the Champions League, Chelsea showed great resilience to withstand an early onslaught from leaders Manchester City and some gruesome defensive wobbles to bring a momentous victory and revive their flagging title ambitions.
The players did not include Villas-Boas in their celebrations following Raul Meireles’ crisp volleyed equaliser or the venomous match-clinching penalty by his replacement Frank Lampard.
But, then, that was never the plan according to the Portuguese boss, who labelled the newspaper report making the accusation “unfair, incorrect and untrue” afterwards as he once again confronted his critics head on in a style far removed from his tame exchanges with the media early in his reign.
Instead, 24 hours after the sale of Nicolas Anelka to the Far East, the blue side of west London was united in celebrating a victory that could not only turn Chelsea’s rocking domestic campaign on the head but the title race itself.
During an opening 20 minutes in which Mario Balotelli nonchalantly seized upon Sergio Aguero’s wonderful through pass to round Petr Cech like he was a schoolboy keeper and David Silva had one of the more obvious penalty appeals rejected, City looked every inch champions elect.
They aggressively pegged back Chelsea’s re-jigged back four with what amounted to an old-style 4-4-2 formation and, with Balotelli providing the muscle and pace to complement the craftiness of Silva and Aguero, City continually found avenues to get behind the home side’s shaky defence.
But Chelsea rode their luck, hung on by their fingertips and managed to get a foothold in the match as City took their foot off the pedal and dropped deeper to form two banks of four behind the ball.
Target practice | Lampard took responsibility to grab spot-kick & score the winner
Key to Chelsea’s recovery was the smooth distribution from the back by John Terry and Oriel Romeu, who were given more time on the ball to initiate attacks, and the attacking endeavours of Daniel Sturridge, a shining light in the driving rain.
Villas-Boas focused his attention on the newly capped England international in the first half, issuing voluble instructions from the touchline, presumably to urge the No.23 to run with pace at the vulnerable Gael Clichy when he had the ball.
|CHELSEA BACK ON TRACK
|PLAYER RATING | DANIEL STURRIDGE|
|Arguably the outstanding player on the pitch. Engineered both goals, first by consumately beating Clichy and laying on the opener with his weaker foot and then forcing the Lescott handball. Clichy couldn't handle him.|
| PLAYER RATING | RAMIRES
|Quelled by City's first-half dominance but his driving runs and energetic breaks were one of the features of Chelsea's comeback, although he was occasionally wanton with his final ball.|
| PLAYER RATING | RAUL MEIRELES
|Hit-and-miss distribution but justified his inclusion with an expert volley for the equaliser after drifting unmarked into the box a la Lampard.|
Sturridge is a thrilling sight when in full flow down the right flank and it was from here that he conjured an equaliser every bit as brilliant as Balotelli’s strike after 100 seconds. Killing Terry’s driven pass, the former City player jinked pass the woeful Clichy and sent an inviting cross into the box with his weaker right foot.
Meireles made the sort of late, unchecked run into the penalty box that has been the trademark of Lampard for a decade and the Portuguese supplied a smooth finish of which the Chelsea veteran, watching on from the bench, would have been proud.
There was little between the two teams at this point, with the difficult conditions – a howling wind accompanied the incessant downpour – making control of the skidding ball difficult.
City began to lose their discipline, with Yaya Toure kicking out at Ramires and then directing his boot into Juan Mata’s thigh, before cuffing the Spaniard around the head, while Vincent Kompany rashly hauled down Didier Drogba.
With a third of the match remaining, Clichy’s sense of timing was once again shoddy, clattering into Ramires to receive his marching orders. City’s tight grip on the game had long since been relinquished but the increasingly animated home crowd now sensed a famous comeback.
Lampard was rapturously received by the faithful when he replaced Meireles and, with City’s 10 men sitting deep, he was given licence by his manager to play in an advanced role behind Didier Drogba and sniff out goalscoring opportunities.
With Chelsea flooding forward, Kolo Toure and Nigel de Jong were brought on to stem the blue tide but Sturridge once again made the difference, cutting inside on to his left foot and hammering a shot into Joleon Lescott, who was unable to stop himself trying to pluck it out of the air. “A blatant penalty,” said Villas-Boas and it was hard to disagree.
Lampard might have lost his starting place but he remains a strong character and a persuasive one. Designated penalty taker Mata grabbed hold of the ball but the sub had a word in the Spaniard’s ear, expressed his confidence from 12 yards and emphatically belted in the winning goal.
It meant plenty to Lampard, who can have celebrated few goals with greater emotion, but even more to his team. The Bridge rocked to 'super Chelsea' and odes to the match-winning thoroughbred.
Chelsea were written out of the title race by their own manager a few weeks back but, suddenly, they are back in with a shout and a two-horse race between the two Manchester clubs has opened up to include a larger field.