Fresh blow for battered Blues
IT SCARCELY needs saying that this was a match Jose Mourinho would have won. Carlo Ancelotti's side were one up and cruising towards a much-needed victory over Blackburn at Ewood Park yesterday, but they lost their way after half-time and never looked like recovering.
Chelsea's hopes of regaining the Premier League crown had suffered a shattering blow with a 1-1 draw on the ground where they gained the self-belief to win a first title in 50 years five years ago.
All is not yet lost -- they can move to within a point of Manchester United by winning their game in hand away to Portsmouth on Wednesday -- but a calamitous few days has left them playing catch-up in every sense.
After being knocked out of the Champions League, they find themselves outside the Premier League's top two for the first time since the middle of August.
After the recriminations that resulted from defeat by Inter Milan, what Chelsea need now is a demonstration of unity.
Roman Abramovich, the owner, would be advised to resist the temptation to launch another investigation. Ancelotti, the manager, should be given a public show of support and the players must stop bickering among themselves and begin fighting for a common cause.
The early signs were not encouraging, however, because after El-Hadji Diouf's 70th-minute equaliser, the visiting team accepted their fate meekly.
Chelsea have been a dysfunctional club since Abramovich paid £140m for a new plaything in the summer of 2003, but in recent years the malaise has spread to an unusually powerful dressing room. Of Mourinho's successors, only Guus Hiddink gained the true loyalty and respect of his players and the short length of his tenure meant that the Dutchman was never confronted with a period of reckoning such as that facing Ancelotti.
The Italian's ability to raise his side from their gloom will reveal a great deal about his character, and that of his players.
Ancelotti believes the rot that has led to a run of two wins from six matches set in with the remarkable 4-2 home defeat by Manchester City last month, but in many ways this game can be seen as a microcosm of their season.
Chelsea began brightly and took the lead as the result of an attractive goal from Didier Drogba, but ran out of steam before being undone by familiar defensive shortcomings.
Such vulnerability at the back has been a recurring problem all season, but even more worrying is the dip in form suffered by many of their leading players. John Terry's mobility appears more restricted with every passing week, Frank Lampard is lacking his usual energy and only Drogba and Florent Malouda are performing anywhere near their best.
Abramovich had attempted to rouse his employees with a reminder of the demands that accompany their huge pay packets last week, and initially the message seemed to have got through as they took a sixth-minute lead.
Nicolas Anelka's pace took him away down the right and he had the presence of mind to delay his cross, with Drogba taking full advantage to score with a first-time, left-foot finish.
Chelsea have relied on Drogba and Lampard for goals for several seasons, leading to an occasionally one-dimensional attacking style that Blackburn coped with comfortably as their opponents lost their way.
Ancelotti blamed a pitch that has taken sustained punishment during the winter, but as well as the poor quality of Chelsea's passing, the home side's resilience was deserving of praise, particularly that of Jones, an 18-year-old centre back making his Premier League debut.
Blackburn were so comfortable that they began to push for an equaliser after half-time and it was no surprise when it arrived. Yuri Zhirkov had already cleared a header by Christopher Samba off the line when Michel Salgado slung another deep cross into the penalty area. Diouf rose above Paulo Ferreira to head in his third goal of the season.
Ferreira was only stationed at the far post because Branislav Ivanovic had limped off before half-time with a knee injury that illustrates Chelsea's mounting woes, but they do not have time to waste in feeling sorry for themselves.
© The Times, London