Diamond in the balance
Blackburn 0-2 ChelseaCombative as his side are, Mark Hughes has an understated manner that helps keep him out of the headlines. His vocabulary was hardly incendiary, but his pre-match implication was clear: Chelsea are not quite the force they were last season. 'I certainly feel the balance of their side is not quite what it was last year,' he had said.
Hughes' problem is that Chelsea proved him correct, while showing the resolve that was in evidence last year to defeat his own Blackburn side. For Chelsea, it represented the return of normal service. Two titles were constructed on mental and defensive strength and an ability to prevail in even the toughest of away games, winning them grudging respect, if not affection. They were championships earned by points ground out at those trips to hostile stadiums where attritional qualities are required. Places, in short, like Ewood Park.
After three away defeats, however, it was a timely occasion for Chelsea's to remind us of their battling qualities. They had never previously resembled a team who would regard the M25 as a blanket to shroud them from the ills of the wider world. Arsenal, beaten at Manchester City on Saturday and at their most fragile when past the Watford Gap last year, were deprived of the chance to challenge for the title by their away form.
Few had forecast Chelsea would suffer the same problem before they lost to Middlesbrough on Wednesday. If it is grim up north for many of their fellow Londoners, however, Chelsea provided a reminder they can relish their ventures out of the capital.
They were aided by Andre Ooijer - the less impressive of the two Dutch debutants on show. Whereas Khalid Boulahrouz excelled for Chelsea, his compatriot allowed them a penalty, tugging back John Terry. Frank Lampard, more reliable from 12 yards for club than country, drilled it in. A second goal was added later by Didier Drogba, lifting his shot into the roof of the net after Michael Essien led a counter-attack.
'The second goal isn't really an issue from our point of view,' said Hughes.
'We're trying to force the game. Our complaint is that the first penalty was given. I would never advocate it, but sometimes in those situations people look for an advantage. John Terry decides to collapse his knees, the referee sees it and maybe in his mind is the new directive from FIFA. When the referee looks at it again, maybe he changes his mind. That was the worst-case scenario for us.'
Jose Mourinho's response was: 'If Mark Hughes wants to speak about penalties, he should speak about three penalties last season. It was a penalty in the first half on John Terry. The rules are very clear. If a defender pushes or pulls or keeps contact for more than two or three seconds, it is a penalty.'
He professed himself pleased with his midfield, saying: 'They play together without problems,' yet Hughes' analysis was correct. Chelsea do lack balance, caused by the complications their summer additions present. Both their formation and approach are yet to be determined, and they crowded the centre of the pitch at Ewood Park, to the detriment of creativity and, ultimately, chances.
An orthodox 4-4-2 has often appeared anathema to Mourinho; acquiring Michael Ballack to join Lampard suggests it will remain so. But, whereas the other clubs with aspirations to challenge for the title have an established system, Mourinho has not resolved his tactical conundrum. Because, assuming his long-held faith in a back four remains and everyone is fit, he has four certainties ahead of them: Claude Makelele, Ballack, Lampard and Andriy Shevchenko.
In other words, an anchorman, two attacking midfielders and a striker.
Competing for the two remaining positions are a second defensive midfielder (Essien), another striker (Drogba) and an assortment of wingers (Arjen Robben, Joe Cole, Salomon Kalou and, ranking last and seemingly least, Shaun Wright-Phillips). That could lend itself to any number of formations, but hardly suggests a consistent shape. Mourinho's decision at Ewood Park was simplified by injuries to Cole and Robben, but resulted in a particularly narrow diamond in a congested midfield.
Essien, providing pace on the right, was the most accomplished on the day. Ballack and Lampard, sharing duties on the left, simply crowded each other, both heading infield in their desire to tip the diamond. A duplication of the attacking midfielder's role was rendered redundant by a shortage of opportunities in open play.
The German came in for more praise from his manager. 'Ballack was very intelligent,' Mourinho added. 'When the team was winning, instead of playing in the diamond, he played 10 metres back, near Makelele.'
He explained: 'With Robben and Cole, we had no wingers so we had to have a diamond. I played with Porto for two seasons with a diamond and I can say it is a very difficult system to play. The players must know it very well.'
They were better defensively. 'Chelsea are a very difficult team to break down at the best of times,' added Hughes. They were all the tougher for the return of Petr Cech in goal. The Czech made one superlative stop from Benni McCarthy when Blackburn looked likely to equalise.
'They have good strikers and they gave us some problems,' admitted Mourinho. 'Petr Cech gave us what we need.' His next requirement is, as Hughes said, balance.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Petr Cech - His most eye-catching contribution was the save from McCarthy, but the Czech goalkeeper delivered a commanding performance, claiming everything aimed at the Chelsea box. Honourable mentions, too, for Essien and Brett Emerton.
BLACKBURN VERDICT: The league table does not flatter them. They remain a work in progress, with Ooijer faltering on debut and Lucas Neill played out of position at left back, but there is scope for improvement and little cause for concern.
CHELSEA VERDICT: An excellent example of how to grind out a victory. After Wednesday's jitters, this was a return to their habitual defensive excellence, but Mourinho surely needs to incorporate his wingers, when fit, further forward.
BAD LOSERS? Mourinho's retort to Mark Schwarzer's accusation was: 'In football, it is very difficult for big people to lose matches, but it is very difficult for small people to win big matches. He is a very good keeper, so I don't believe he has vision problems, but he didn't see Chelsea players swapping shirts with Middlesbrough players and Chelsea manager waiting to congratulate Middlesbrough players.'
WHERE'S GALLAS? Questioned about the absence of the French defender, Mourinho's rather rhetorical response was: 'Ask him. Gallas, I think you should ask. I think he would have a lot of answers.'
THE FOOTBALLING FRATERNITE: France's threat to have Claude Makelele banned from four Premiership matches - which Mourinho admits he is powerless to prevent - if he does not continue his career with Les Bleus brought the following response from the Portuguese to conclude a bravura performance: 'In the national team of France, they don't know the word liberate. Makelele wants to retire but his national coach does not allow him to retire. In every country, people can retire: Figo, Nedved, Paul Scholes. Except the national team of France.'