We are top of the League
again, but our second League draw, and first non-scoring
match, was something of an anti-climax.
What a strange game. Chelsea forced 17 corners without
really forging any great chances from them, seemed to
be able to get behind the Birmingham defence at will –
especially in a one-sided second half – and yet lacked
managed to create just a few genuine scoring opportunities,
and yet never really played well other than in flashes.
The midfield in particular struggled to find fluency.
Claudio Ranieri had opted for a diamond shape in that
area. With Claude Makelele anchoring the centre, Geremi
was unusually placed on the left and Frank Lampard on
the right, with Joe Cole starting his first match in the
apex of the diamond.
Birmingham boss Steve Bruce had selected a five-man middle,
and David Dunn, in a free-ranging role, and Steve Clemence
excelled in a first half that swung from end to end but
lacked all but occasional quality.
Alone upfront, Christophe Dugarry showed some neat and
clever touches, beating three players on one occasion
but shot weakly. But Robert Huth – called out of the stands
at the last minute after William Gallas apparently injured
himself in the warm-up – showed much more composure and
strength than he had at Boro last weekend and, despite
a booking for a late tackle, was equal to the experienced
Down the left, apart from some early anxieties in defence,
Wayne Bridge stormed down the wing, giving Damien Johnson
a torrid time (one would hesitate to use the phrase ‘roasted
him’ now). Too often, though, his crosses or cut-backs
failed to find Chelsea players in a position to capitalise.
Other than glancing headers from Lazaridis in the first
and Clemence in the second, the home side rarely threatened
Chelsea, and after 50 minutes they were entirely hemmed
into their own half.
Birmingham started brightly setting a first half pace
that Chelsea failed to temper and the home side suffered
for after the break. The swiftness of play led to too
many errors and it was a slapdash game relieved by regular
half-chances that were too often snatched at or blocked.
Chelsea came closest to scoring soon into the second half
after Crespo – an intelligent mover and passer too infrequently
fed the ball – held off Cunningham in the box for Jimmy
Floyd Hasselbaink to sneak in and fire goalwards, only
for his shot to deflect off the inside of Maik Taylor’s
Taylor made many saves, but none were worth genuinely
challenging. It was that sort of match. As the game wore
on the extraordinary corner count – the hosts’ two to
Chelsea’s 17 – looked to point to the way to unlock the
goals. But Geremi’s and Hasselbaink’s deliveries, never
quite produced the opening.
As the second half wore on, Dugarry became a spectator,
Bridge – even after Damien Duff replaced Joe Cole on 65
minutes – had so much space and pace it was almost embarrassing.
Angled passes into the box, caused by occasionally astute
interplay between Geremi, Crespo, Lampard or Makelele,
caused mayhem. But it was never quite enough.
Even a 35-yard Huth free-kick, usually such a reliable
pulse-raiser, scudded helplessly past the wall – for a
corner, of course.
In his best moment, fed by Lampard with two facing him,
Cole used a great drag back trick but shot when he should
Crespo got slightly too much on a near-post header from
a Hasselbaink corner, a Lampard shot was tipped over,
and Gudjohnsen, a late sub for Hasselbaink, couldn’t quite
shape to shoot from the Argentinean’s subtle header.
Hughes came on for Clemence, John for Dugarry. Cisse,
Makelele, Terry and Johnson were others booked.
If there is a period before the Lord Mayor’s show, as
there is after, then perhaps the weekend’s much anticipated
games – us against the Arsenal and Brum versus Villa –
will provide the feast we lacked tonight.
But we go to Highbury in pole position. And that feels