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Nov 15, 2008

Out with the old and in with the new

He sat glowering in the dugout while Chelsea's top scorer scored a highly accomplished double. It was behaviour that fits the caricature of Nicolas Anelka, but Didier Drogba was the sullen substitute, his former deputy the marvellous matchwinner.

In a role reversal, the Frenchman is now Chelsea's premier striker and the Ivorian their most high-profile replacement. As Anelka made it seven goals in three Premier League games, Drogba was confined to a brief cameo. He veers from injury to probable suspension. Anelka is going from strength to strength.

One brace overcame Blackburn. Another was the principal reason Chelsea beat West Bromwich Albion to maintain their perfect away form. It is now seven wins in a row on the road this season, 10 including the end of the last campaign. Their title challenge is underpinned by their prowess on their travels.

Chelsea were once thought unbeatable at home, but that provides a reminder how swiftly fortunes can change. There is another example in attack. This is a tale of two strikers, with a twist few predicted. Neither enjoyed the best of Champions League finals, and there were reasons to believe it could have marked the end of a chapter at Chelsea for either.

Both remain, but now they resemble Old Chelsea and New Chelsea. Drogba, booed in his brief outing at the Hawthorns, personified Jose Mourinho's team. He was grudgingly admired, but widely disliked. He possessed an awesome physicality, but he could play as well. He lost friends and alienated people but won games and trophies.

Now the 1-0 specialists are the division's top-scorers, born-again entertainers with a potent spearhead. Anelka lacks Luiz Felipe Scolari's ever-present smile, but his brand of football seems to epitomise the Brazilian's team. There is a greater emphasis on speed. Rather than the long ball, a more precise passing game is employed, and it is benefiting him. Anelka - and Scolari - can only be faulted against the most demanding opposition: Manchester United, Liverpool and Roma.

Scolari believes they can play together, but they are two men who have the air of loners. Drogba seems capable of disagreeing with anyone else. Anelka looks a solitary man, but then goalscoring can be a solitary pursuit, something for the single-minded to do.

In a formation that makes a partnership unlikely and unnecessary, it becomes a choice between Drogba and Anelka. The latter is Scolari's choice at the moment. An injection of confidence, according to his manager, has transformed him from ineffectual to irresistible. "Nicolas Anelka is happy because the colleagues and friends believe more in Nicolas Anelka than before," Scolari said. "He has more chances to score. He is a good player - good dribbling, good finishing and fantastic for us."

That was evident. When Florent Malouda's ball sent Anelka clear on goal just before half-time, he produced the deftest of finishes. With Scott Carson going to ground in a bid to stop the anticipated shot, Anelka dinked the ball over him. It barely went waist height, but it still cleared the goalkeeper. "Nicolas Anelka gets chances and he very rarely misses," said Tony Mowbray.

Then, in first-half injury time, he doubled his tally. It was the culmination of a flowing move. Deco, who prospered in what would once have been called the right-half's role, picked out Salomon Kalou, who veered infield and located Anelka with an outside-of-the-boot pass. The finish was smooth, defeating Scott Carson at his near post.

It may be a cause of embarrassment, but it was the second time Carson was beaten there. After he repelled an earlier drive from Frank Lampard, the Albion fans chorused "England's No. 1". It was sung with more optimism than realism, however, as Jose Bosingwa displayed when a rare left-footed shot exposed Carson's positioning and defeated a flailing hand to open the scoring.

It was merited. This was another excellent performance by Bosingwa, whose blend of speed and stamina makes him rare. Frequently, he operated in more advanced position than Mikel John Obi, the anchor midfielder. On other occasions, all too typically, Frank Lampard became the furthest man forward. The numbers in Chelsea's three-tier midfield enable them to augment defence and attack alike.

Mowbray was impressed. "Their midfield rotation and quality on the ball was obvious," he said, defending his decision to start with two strikers. "I saw Middlesbrough try and shut up shop and they lost 5-0. You can't shut up shop against Chelsea. Who can? Maybe Manchester United, maybe Liverpool. Not West Bromwich Albion."

It was hard to argue.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Nicolas Anelka - A clinical display of finishing from the in-form forward in the country at the moment. It is hard to see Drogba regaining his place in the short term, whether or not he is banned for the coin-throwing incident.

WEST BROM VERDICT: Chelsea have found a blend of style and substance. Thus far, Albion have not. They passed with verve and, at times, imagination and Borja Valero did wonderfully well to forge an early chance. But they do not score enough goals and concede far too many, some in worrying fashion. The consolation for the Premier League's basement side is that they have had spent recent weeks facing the division's top teams and are only a point adrift.

CHELSEA VERDICT: This was another match where they prospered despite several supposedly significant absentees. Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, Alex, Michael Essien, Juliano Belletti and Joe Cole did not figure, Ashley Cole was an unused substitute and both Michael Ballack and Drogba were restricted to late outings. While the Carling Cup exit to Burnley may suggested otherwise, this is a squad with strength in depth.

STAT ALERT: Chelsea have equalled a top-flight record set by Bill Nicholson's double-winning Tottenham team 48 years ago by winning 10 successive away league games. For a team who once found validation in statistics, that will be cherished. As impressive, however, was the manner of their latest win.

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