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Dec 17, 2006

All hail the untouchables

Everton 2 - 3 Chelsea

Desperation, inspiration and intuition form a fearsome blend. Chelsea called upon all three to salvage a memorable and unlikely victory at Goodison Park.

There was also a smidgen of common sense in a comeback began by the reversion to the 4-3-3 formation that brought them two titles. The nostalgic among the Chelsea support yearned for the comparatively recent sight of two wingers in harness, flanking Didier Drogba.

Nonetheless, when Drogba's wonderful half-volley completed their win, Chelsea's outfield players comprised one central defender, two left backs, four central midfielders, a right winger and two strikers. Conventional it was not. The second of the forwards, Andriy Shevchenko, was eventually introduced with 18 minutes remaining. The change in the balance of power in the striking positions at Stamford Bridge is becoming clearly illustrated.

Shevchenko's advocates, a decreasing band who no longer number Silvio Berlusconi among them, will point to his role in Drogba's winner. Well as the Premiership's costliest player did to win a flick-on, his contribution, in a microcosm of his season, was dwarfed by Drogba's. A dipping half-volley from 30 yards left Tim Howard stranded and sealed a hat-trick of long-range strikes.

The others came from Michael Ballack, with a free kick that rebounded in off the post and the unwitting Tim Howard's back, and Frank Lampard.

David Moyes lamented: 'Three goals from 30 yards but we should have done better on all three. I don't know if the wall was right on the first one. Second, we should have closed Lampard down much quicker and we had the opportunity to do so and the same with Drogba. But I can't take away from the finishes and the technique of all three players was fabulous.'

Drogba and Salomon Kalou had also struck the woodwork ('we hit the post every game minimum twice,' said Mourinho), in a demonstration of power. Yet the recovery can be traced back to Mourinho's half-time decision to trade in the cripplingly narrow 4-1-3-2 for the more familiar 4-3-3.

It is a question of balance. A concentration of players in the centre of pitch makes Chelsea hard to break down, but can result in stalemate in a crowded midfield, and in their quest for a hat-trick of Premiership titles, winning is imperative.

And, though initially deployed as Drogba's accomplice in attack, Robben provided an indication of why he is essential. In Joe Cole's continued absence, he is their only feared dribbler. Lampard, in particular, and Ballack, would rather shoot, while Drogba and Michael Essien prefer sheer power, rather than the sleight of foot and array of skills Robben relies upon to defeat defenders.

Variety is an invaluable attacking asset. And the Dutchman, though more effective when granted a role that enabled him to drift out to the touchline, did enough to maintain his place. The width provided by Kalou, the other winger introduced, stretched play sufficiently to allow Lampard to equalise.

The winner, meanwhile, was a vindication of Mourinho's midweek comments when he said Chelsea needed Drogba 'not just tactically but also mentally'.

Whether the same could be said for Shevchenko, especially with the theory that Chelsea are at their best playing 4-3-3 gaining credence, is doubtful.

Belatedly correct tactically, Mourinho is starting to look more unwise in his summer spending. While Shevchenko languished on the bench, Khalid Boulahrouz and Henrique Hilario were enforced starters, and the additions to Chelsea's goals against column reflected upon their inclusion. But they were not recruited as galacticos. Their omission from his list of 'untouchables' provoked no headlines.

From the (ahem) touchables to the touched. Everton were awarded a penalty for the second of two strong appeals. It came following amateurish defending from Boulahrouz, caught on the wrong side of the rookie Victor Anichebe and penalised for wresting him to the ground. Mikel Arteta sent the unconvincing goalkeeper Hilario the wrong way.

A second set-piece from the Spaniard had restored Everton's lead. His corner was met by a thumping header from Joseph Yobo. The two goals Chelsea conceded left Mourinho lamenting the absence of Petr Cech.

'I'm not saying Hilario and [Carlo] Cudicini aren't playing well for us. They do a good job. But to be without the best goalkeeper in the world for two months is not easy.' The other significant absentee was John Terry, and Mourinho admits he is short of defenders. 'It is a bit risky to face a season with three central defenders,' he said; especially, some might say, with Boulahrouz among them.

He had been substituted before Lampard's leveller and Drogba's winner so, in Mourinho's words: 'We finished the game with Kalou at right back, Drogba at centre back and Ashley Cole, an attacking left back, as the third central defender.' Whether inspired, intuitive or desperate, it worked.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Mikel Arteta - Chelsea's comeback could obscure Everton's excellence for much of the game, but it should not. The Spaniard's fine distribution and superb set-pieces just earn him the award, with Victor Anichebe a close second.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: Quite how Boulahrouz, despite a multitude of offences and a habit of wrestling Anichebe to the ground, escaped a yellow card, eludes this observer

CHELSEA VERDICT: Mourinho was invited to attribute their fightback to quality and preferred to emphasise character. And while Manchester United and Arsenal possess greater flair, it is Chelsea's spirit that stands out,

EVERTON VERDICT: An impressed Mourinho praised them for their aggression. Joleon Lescott provided more evidence as to why he ranks among the signings of the summer, and Arteta's return reinvigorated their midfield. But Anichebe's excellence could spell the end for James Beattie.

A CLASH OF PHILOSOPHIES #1: Mourinho was upset by Andrew Johnson's attempts to procure an early penalty. 'In my culture, the philosophy is call him an intelligent player, In other countries you use other words. I am influenced by a new culture, a culture I prefer. So he is not any more the intelligent player I call a few years ago. After that I think he felt a bit embarrassed and behaved very well.'

The word 'dive' never crossed his lips, but the inference was obvious. Moyes responded: 'I don't think it's a penalty kick, no, and it's certainly not a dive. He [Mourinho] has got a big powerful 15-stone striker up there who is a bit partial to it himself.' Not that he mentioned Drogba by name.

A CLASH OF PHILOSOPHIES #2: A terrific match for the neutrals, but enjoyment, for one observer, was confined to the brief time after Drogba's winner. 'I enjoy the game because I win. If I lose I do not enjoy the game,' added Mourinho, a comment critics may think is reflected in Chelsea's methods.


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