From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.04 :: Jan. 24, 2009

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FOOTBALL / ENGLISH PREMIERSHIP

Snatching a last-gasp victory

Chelsea celebrated Frank Lampard's injury-time winner as though they had won the European Cup and the atmosphere in the dressing-room was charged by a giddy delight, writes David Hytner.

All was well that ended well for Luiz Felipe Scolari. There is no feeling quite like the late equaliser followed by the even later winner and, having cut an increasingly agitated and helpless figure on the touchline as he stared into the abyss, the manager could release all that pent-up frustration with a scream towards the heavens.

This was just what Chelsea needed after the miserable defeat at Manchester United and their run of two wins and two draws from eight Premier League fixtures. They ought to have won comfortably, such was the possession they enjoyed and the clear-cut chances that they created; they could conceivably have been three or four-nil up before the Stoke midfielder Rory Delap stunned Stamford Bridge with his deftly clipped finish over Petr Cech.

But the effect of pulling back from the brink to snatch victory is even more uplifting for a team's morale. Chelsea celebrated Frank Lampard's injury-time winner as though they had won the European Cup and the atmosphere in the dressing-room was charged by a giddy delight.

As the dust settled, though, it was clear that the dramatic ending had also to serve as a new beginning. "There are always little moments in seasons where things change so hopefully this can be it," said Lampard, who was promoted to captain on his 400th appearance for the club after John Terry injured his back in the warm-up. "This can be a turning point if we follow it through. We have lost to all the big teams this season and we are not happy about that but we are still in the mix."

With two minutes to go at Stamford Bridge, the news had filtered through of Manchester United's goal at Bolton Wanderers and of Aston Villa's lead at Sunderland. Chelsea stood to slip to fourth. Peter Kenyon, the chief executive, had left his seat and Scolari was throwing out his arms and turning up his palms as chances continued to go begging.

The match had followed a familiar pattern, Chelsea on the front foot but misfiring and being punished on an isolated raid forward by the oppo? sition. The same hard-luck stories in front of goal may soon begin to wear thin. Although Scolari's men dug out the victory this time, it did not allay the concerns that have built over the past couple of months.

Relief was chief among the emotions at boardroom level and the directors know that a home win over Stoke proves little. The defining tests will come next month, in the shape of away Premier League fixtures against Liverpool and Villa, and the first leg of the Champions League last 16 tie with Juventus at Stamford Bridge.

There was a flatness about Chelsea for long spells and while the crowd, commendably, stayed with the team and the manager, there is the sense that this is a club in transition.

Scolari will surely press for fresh blood now that the midfielder Joe Cole has been ruled out for the season with cruciate knee-ligament damage but he preferred to focus on how he had sold rather than signed on the market and how he, more than any other Chelsea manager of the Roman Abramovich era, had "put young players on the pitch."

Having raised eyebrows by again discarding Didier Drogba, Scolari brought on Franco Di Santo and Miroslav Stoch and both the strikers contributed to the comeback. He also had the defender Michael Mancienne and the forward Gael Kakuta among his substitutes.

"This is the way for Chelsea at the moment," said Scolari, before Lampard reminded the young hopefuls of the application they needed to show. "A lot of young players don't realise what it takes to get to the top," he said. "Chelsea is a great club but everything is put on for them now. Players like John Terry, Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack all work hard behind the scenes to get to where they are."

The Stoke manager Tony Pulis had Ballack in mind when he criticised the way that certain Chelsea players reacted to fouls. "They are from a different society to us," he said. "James Beattie got brought down just after Amdy Faye was booked (for catching Ballack) and Beattie jumps up and gets on with it. He doesn't roll around and wait for the physio to come on and hope for someone to get booked. Our players get up. We tell them to."

Pulis was moved to substitute Faye on 28 minutes as he feared he might get a second yellow card. Scolari and Chelsea fight on.


THE RESULTS

January 18: Tottenham 1 (Defoe 70) drew with Portsmouth 1 (Nugent 59). Half-time: 0-0; West Ham 3 (Di Michele 7, Noble pen-60, Cole 76) bt Fulham 1 (Konchesky 22). Half-time: 1-1.

January 17: Blackburn 3 (McCarthy pen-61, Roberts 66 & 86) bt Newcastle 0. Half-time: 0-0; Bolton 0 lost to Manchester United 1 (Berbatov 90). Half-time: 0-0; Chelsea 2 (Belletti 88, Lampard 90+4) bt Stoke 1 (Delap 60). Half-time: 0-0; Hull 1 (Cousin 65) lost to Arsenal 3 (Adebayor 30, Nasri 82, Bendtner 86). Half-time: 0-1; Manchester City 1 (Zabaleta 53) bt Wigan 0. Half-time: 0-0; Sunderland 1 (Collins 11) lost to Aston Villa 2 (Milner 60, Barry pen-80). Half-time: 1-0; West Brom 3 (Brunt 4, Koren 54 & 67) bt Middlesbrough 0. Half-time: 1-0.

January 14: Manchester United 1 (Rooney 1) bt Wigan 0. Half-time: 1-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009



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