Hasselbaink adds to City woes
Officially there is no crisis but just in case there was Chelsea made a drama out of it yesterday. What appeared to be a straightforward home win by the better team became an undignified scramble for victory as Manchester City came close to forcing a draw in the closing minutes.
This was City's sixth successive league defeat and they are now only two points above the bottom three. Though they arguably deserved one for effort yesterday, a draw would have been due as much to Chelsea dropping a gear as City raising their game.
Take away the critical froth that has followed the clear-out of Gianluca Vialli's staff by his successor Claudio Ranieri, and Chelsea are simply a good side suffering an indifferent patch. The quality has not disappeared but Ranieri has yet to achieve the consistency needed to make Europe.
He has declared that if Chelsea are not champions by the time he has completed his three-year contract he will consider himself a failure, a rash pronouncement considering the title has come once to Stamford Bridge in 95 years.
City came having conceded 13 goals in their four previous visits to London this season, one of those a scoreless game at Tottenham. Much of their performance yesterday supported Joe Royle's claim that they had not been playing badly, just letting the opposition score.
Until recently Royle's side were doing better on their return to the elite than many predicted but newly promoted teams often start to feel the pressure once the clocks have gone back. City are a busy beaverish side, typified by hard-working footballers such as Danny Tiatto, Jeff Whitley and Shaun Wright-Phillips, yet make the sort of errors that are more likely to be punished at this level than they are in the Nationwide League.
Yesterday was a good example. For much of the first half Alf Inge Haaland and Whitley matched a Chelsea midfield lacking the suspended Dennis Wise but augmented by Ranieri's decision to move Marcel Desailly out of defence into the anchor role he filled at Milan.
Passing the ball neatly, City dominated Chelsea territorially without creating a clear-cut opening. But they restricted the opposition to a header from Desailly, after a corner from Gianfranco Zola, that Tiatto nodded off the line.
Zola so clearly held the key to Chelsea's chances of breaking City down that it was surprising Royle's players allowed him so much space. On 27 minutes the Italian followed a run to the byline with a centre from which Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's header skimmed the crossbar.
Another minute and Chelsea were ahead. Haaland, off balance as he received a throw-in deep in the City half, could only prod the ball forward to Zola, who steered it beyond Nicky Weaver's left hand and inside the far post. After this Ranieri withdrew Desailly to the back three, allowing Celestine Babayaro's forward runs to give Chelsea extra width on the left.
By half-time the contest looked over. In the 45th minute Zola's inspired through-pass released Mario Melchiot for the low centre from which Hasselbaink drove in his 11th league goal of the season. But Chelsea were increasingly forced on the defensive in the second half and after City substitute Paul Dickov had scored from the rebound when Ed de Goey blocked a drive from Kevin Horlock, Stamford Bridge lived on its nerves.
Chelsea: de Goey; Babayaro (Harley 75), Leboeuf, Desailly, Melchiot, Morris, Gudjohnsen (Poyet 59), Dalla Bona, Zola, Terry (Bogarde 79), Hasselbaink. Subs Not Used: Cudicini, Slatter. Booked: Terry. Goals: Zola 28, Hasselbaink 45.
Manchester City: Weaver; Horlock, Prior, Howey, Charvet, Goater, Haaland, Whitley, Tiatto (Wiekens 67), Wanchope (Dickov 45), Wright-Phillips. Subs Not Used: Wright, Dunne, Kennedy. Goals: Dickov 82. Attendance: 34,971.
Referee: D Gallagher (England).