Blues for Boro as Chelsea snatch victory
Middlesbrough 1 Chelsea 2
Hernan Crespo denied battling Middlesbrough a deserved point at the Riverside Stadium this afternoon as Chelsea snatched a hard-earned victory at the death.
The Argentinian headed home a Damien Duff cross with just two minutes remaining after Boro had fought their way back into a game which looked to have slipped from their grasp.
Eidur Gudjohnsen put the visitors ahead after just 17 minutes as the Londoners held sway before the break but Szilard Nemeth levelled within 19 seconds of the restart and Boro, inspired by Gaizka Mendieta, genuinely threatened to claim all three points before Crespo's late strike broke their hearts.
The fact that Claudio Ranieri was able to leave approaching stg£47million worth of talent on the substitutes' bench will not have been lost on the Boro faithful when they looked at their team's list of replacements, which comprised untested Australian goalkeeper Brad Jones, fellow youngsters Stewart Downing and Andrew Davies, out-of-favour Brazilian Juninho and yet-to-impress striker Michael Ricketts.
But if much of the talk in recent months has been of Roman Abramovich's war chest and the new recruits his cash has brought to Stamford Bridge, it was England midfielder Frank Lampard who was the central character in the opening 45 minutes as he prompted his side forward and forced the Teessiders on to the back foot. His probing from the middle of the park was at the heart of much of Chelsea's best work, and with Jesper Gronkjaer and Duff providing the width it took a concerted effort from Colin Cooper and his defensive colleagues to keep the visitors at bay for much of the half.
They failed on only three occasions, Gudjohnsen passing up a second-minute chance from Duff's inviting cross and then John Terry seeing his 32nd-minute header from Lampard's free-kick come back off the crossbar. However, in between, Boro were punished when Lampard robbed George Boateng to allow Duff to slide Gudjohnsen in.
The Iceland international needed no second invitation to slip the ball past the advancing Mark Schwarzer and give the Londoners the lead. Boro struggled to break down the visitors' well-organised defence as the lively Malcolm Christie found himself too often isolated in attack, although Brazilian Doriva and Jonathan Greening worked tirelessly to ensure that Chelsea did not have things all their own way in midfield.
But the bald fact was that they managed only two meaningful efforts on goal during the opening 45 minutes, both from Doriva, both from distance and both off-target.
Boro boss Steve McClaren needed more from his side in the second half, and they could hardly have responded more swiftly as they got back on level terms within just 19 seconds of the restart. Mendieta collected Boateng's pass and span away from his marker before slipping a pass into Nemeth's path, and the Slovakian made no mistake to beat Carlo Cudicini with a first-time left-foot strike.
The equaliser gave Boro renewed impetus, and as they grew in stature, the composure which had been the hallmark of Chelsea's first-half display evaporated. Even with stg£16.8million striker Crespo, on as a replacement for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the visitors struggled to exert any real pressure with defender Robert Huth's long-range 57th-minute effort, which forced a good save from Schwarzer, a rare occurrence.
Indeed, it was Boro who posed the greater threat as Mendieta got the bit between his teeth and Doriva and Boateng began to gain the upper hand in their battle with Lampard and Claude Makelele. Christie only just failed to reach the Spaniard's 55th-minute cross with the goal at his mercy and Doriva had a powerful shot turned away by Cudicini.
Mendieta nudged the door open once again on 66 minutes when he floated a long ball over Terry's head to Christie, but although the striker lifted a left-foot shot over Cudicini, it dropped wide. Boateng sent a blistering drive across the face of goal 16 minutes from time after cutting inside Wayne Bridge following a pacy Boro attack, but the home side almost committed suicide three minutes later.
Cooper gifted possession to Crespo to allow the Argentinian to run in on goal, but Schwarzer stood tall and took his shot full in the face, a brave block which left him needing extensive treatment. Ranieri introduced Adrian Mutu and Joe Cole during the break in play, but still it was the Teessiders who had the momentum. However, with just two minutes remaining, Duff turned smartly past Boro substitute Downing wide on the right and sent a cross to the far post which the unmarked Crespo headed past Schwarzer and into the bottom corner to snatch victory.