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May 5, 2008

Ballack delivers again for Chelsea

Newcastle United 0 - 2 Chelsea

Title races can be determined by many factors, but among the most unlikely are an Avram Grant tantrum, a renascent German and a refereeing performance in September. Chelsea's outstanding away form is a more likely cause but, in the aftermath of their victory at St James' Park, a trio of reasons were proffered.

John Terry attributed their second-half improvement to an outburst at the interval from his seemingly placid manager, though Grant, asked if he has a temper, replied: 'No, I don't think so.' Of greater concern to the Israeli was his side's rather bad-tempered defeat to Manchester United in September when Mike Dean dismissed John Obi Mikel.

'Maybe the referee at Old Trafford, he is the difference between them and us,' Grant insisted though, given that game was seven months ago, maybe not.

Perhaps the most significant, however, was the involvement of Chelsea's opening goalscorer. The differences between Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and Grant's side may be narrower than Manchester United's lead at the top of the Premier League, but there is one significant disparity: Michael Ballack is now a bona fide match-winner.

A nerveless double against United was followed by a similarly vital opener, headed in from Didier Drogba's free kick. He has ensured that, for the first time since 1999, the title will be determined on the final day of the season. Were he to repeat his recent goalscoring feats against Bolton on Sunday, his renaissance will be complete. Once a supposed untouchable and then a cause of rancour, Ballack's recent deeds ought to make him a favourite at Stamford Bridge.

A lack of flourishes and a seemingly haughty style on the pitch may not help, but in that, as in much else, he symbolises Chelsea. Given his nationality, Ballack is no stranger to the stereotype of efficiency, but it applies to his club side more than his country. Chelsea have no equals at grinding out wins. Defensive solidity, accompanied by a midfield anchorman and a surfeit of enforcers, makes for a fearsome combination.

That is not fulsome praise, and Chelsea rarely invite it. The superlatives may be reserved for sides who are more free-flowing, but they have no equals for effectiveness. In many respects, this was an entirely typical away performance from them.

That said, for 45 minutes they were below par. Then, a rarity. A Grant rollicking is harder to imagine than an outburst from many of his contemporaries. But, according to Ballack: 'We deserved it.' There could be no doubt they responded to it.

Grant rectified his initial error by moving Nicolas Anelka from the right flank, where he had been utterly ineffectual, into attack alongside Didier Drogba. John Terry had already headed against the bar when Ballack scored and Florent Malouda secured victory from a pass from the substitute Frank Lampard.

Nonetheless, they still require Wigan to halt Manchester United to win the title. 'Everything is possible, especially in English football,' insisted Grant. 'Maybe we can win 18-0 on Sunday.' Then again, maybe not. Nevertheless, his Newcastle counterpart believes they would be worthy champions. Kevin Keegan said: 'You usually only have one exceptional side and this year you have two.

'I think Chelsea are a better team than everyone's given them credit for. They have a very strong squad. They have people all around the squad who are better than anyone bar a top-four team. That's why they are where they are and they can play 60-odd games a season when we only play 40-odd.'

Typically frank, Keegan said his charges had failed their test against the elite. Nevertheless, they prospered for an hour. Newcastle United and good defending are mention in the same breath as often as Keegan and tactical excellence, yet there were demonstrations of both today, despite the eventual result. At the heart of the Newcastle defence, Steven Taylor was magnificent. For the first 15 minutes of the second half, he appeared to be on a mission to repel, intercept and clear everything single-handedly. And until Keegan was compelled to remove Mark Viduka at half-time, his game-plan was working well.

The ploy of using Michael Owen as the deepest of three strikers almost bore fruit as well-timed runs produced chances. One volley was wastefully dispatched over the bar, while a shot drew a goal-line clearance from Terry. But Viduka's injury deprived the attack of its focal point and, perhaps Ballack of his marker, the German losing the ineffectual replacement Alan Smith for his goal.

Thereafter, there was no way back for Newcastle and a surprisingly realistic Keegan outlined the depressing reality for them at a club with perpetual dreams of glory.

He explained: 'We're a million miles away from Chelsea. This league is in danger of becoming one of the most boring in the world. The top four this year will be the same next year. We'll be trying to get fifth next season.

'There's a pecking order. The great players, the top players potentially will go where the honours are will go there and if it doesn't work there, they will drop down to a Newcastle.

'Providing the owner backs me and I've no proof of that but no doubt he will and I can get three or four players, we might be able to win the second division of the Premiership. But the gulf's too big.'

And by making five changes and still winning, Chelsea rather proved that.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Essien - Not for the first time. Essien was alone among the Chelsea players in creating a chance in the first half and he worked selflessly and effectively thereafter. Is there a better central midfielder in the league?

NEWCASTLE VERDICT: Having found a system and identified a first-choice side, there is a sense that they are heading in the right direction. Nonetheless, the 'three or four players' Keegan spoke of wanting are required if they are to come into contention for fifth place next season. Alan Smith's predictably poor display as Viduka's replacement showed as much.

CHELSEA VERDICT: Their stand-out performers, as is often the case, were Ricardo Carvalho and Essien. The Portuguese provided another demonstration of smoothly calm defending, the Ghanaian an example of the benefits of boundless energy. Keegan cited their strength in depth as a reason for their progress, and it is hard to argue with that. Sir Alex Ferguson's rotation at Stamford Bridge cost United; Grant's at St James' Park hardly harmed Chelsea. And a glance across the midfield in the closing stages - with Essien, Mikel, Lampard and Ballack strung across it - showed the formidable physicality that makes them so hard to beat. .


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