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Aug 15, 2009

Drogba saves Ancelotti's blushes on opening day

There was a familiar air of optimism hovering over Chelsea as they kicked off the new Premier League season and Didier Drogba ensured it could remain in place for the time being at least. With a new, high-profile manager in place and the bookies installing the Blues as pre-season title favourites, similarly positive vibes were felt around this very stadium precisely a year ago as Luiz Felipe Scolari stood on the spot Ancelotti assumed for this opening day fixture against Hull. Of course, Scolari's early promise was quickly buried amid glaring failings, with his only positive memory from his brief and turbulent tenure as Chelsea boss being the vast cash sum he received following the termination of his contract after just six months. It just so happens that the Brazilian's final game as Chelsea boss came against Hull City last February, with his failure to beat Phil Brown's underdogs after a 0-0 draw viewed as a offence worthy of the sack, so Ancelotti was left in little doubt that victory was expected against opponents who were expected to be swept away with ease. Many have tipped Hull to prop up the top flight table this season, so this should have been a mismatch on the grand scale, yet the first half provided evidence that Ancelotti's master plan is still a work in progress. The new manager admitted he did not know too much about Hull in his first set of programme notes as Chelsea chief and the relaxed attitude he has brought to the job was also evident in a curiously free and easy pre-match warm-up. While most clubs in England go through supervised drills before the kick-off, Chelsea's star names appeared to amble around on the lush turf without any direction. With a few long-range shots, a bit of pushing and shoving and no coaching direction, this was a case of seasoned professionals being trusted to do their own warm-up. Ancelotti was known for giving highly experienced players the responsibility to look after their own careers during his time at AC Milan and he seems determined to introduce a similar philosophy in west London. Time will tell whether his employment of a midfield diamond formation and his move to reunite the previously unconvincing strike pairing for Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba will work, yet and it quickly became clear that Hull were not ready to fulfil the unwanted role of punch bag in this first Premier League act. Drogba's early miss was a poor effort for a player of his standing in the game and while Chelsea's passing was crisp and their confident early on, their failure to find a breakthrough quickly led to some frustration. Then came a passage of play after 15 minutes that confirmed some of their old flaws may need to be addressed by the new boss. Hull are one of many Premier League sides blessed with a clutch of towering performers and one of Chelsea's failings last season was dealing with crosses into the box, with the once masterful keeper Petr Cech exposed all-too often. Cech has not looked convincing under high balls for some time and on a day when he was reunited with the player who inadvertently caused him to suffer a fractured skull in an on-field clash back in 2006, new Hull signing Stephen Hunt, he again looked vulnerable when required to put his head in where it hurts. After Chelsea struggled to deal with a couple of well directed corners, George Boateng's shot at goal was deflected fortunately into the path of Hunt, who gleefully marked his return to the Premier League by notching the very first goal of the season. Roundly booed every time he went near the ball, Chelsea followers who refuse to believe his clash with Cech was an accident had witnessed one of their pantomime villains bursting their enthusiasm for the new season. Chelsea's problem was solved, to an extent, when the previously lacklustre Drogba accepted what seemed like a softly awarded free-kick to lash home an equaliser with a brilliant free-kick after 37 minutes. It was a rare shot on target for the home side. In truth, the first half confirmed Chelsea's midfield formation is not functioning as it should just yet. With Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and Florent Malouda failing to provide any width, Hull merely needed to cut down their opponents in the centre of the park and they blocked their path with relative ease. Ancelotti proved again that he is going to be a proactive coach as he made a change at half-time, throwing Michael Ballack into the fray in a bid to give the midfield more dynamism in place of the hard working Mikel. We can expect plenty more changes in this area of the team before he settles on his best line-up as his options are plentiful. Anelka should have fired his side into a lead seconds after the re-start as slick Chelsea passing carved Hull wide open, but his shot hit keeper Boaz Myhill when it seemed easier to score from close range. Showing more pace and invention, Chelsea again looked like a formidable force in the first 20 minutes of the second half, but Hull weathered the storm and it seemed as if they could claim unlikely point at Stamford Bridge for a second successive season. With Chelsea's invention evaporating and a deflected shot from Ireland striker Caleb Folan forced a fine save from Cech in the dying minutes, Hull were daring to feel comfortable as they began to toast the point their efforts may well have merited. Then came Drogba's chipped injury time winner, which he later admitted was a cross that has floated neatly over the impressive Boaz Myhill in the Hull goal to secure the three points for a Chelsea side that oozed relief as much as delight as the final whistle blew. Ancelotti will welcome the sweet taste of victory, but he will know this Chelsea side are a long way from proving they have overcome the deficiencies that cost them the title last season. The same players who could only manage a third place finish last season remain in place and on this evidence, Chelsea could still be something of an unreliable machine. STAR TURN: You have to give it to Drogba for his two goals, even though he did not look at his best for long periods. PLUS POINT: The sight of Stamford Bridge Tsar Roman Abramovich looking excited when Drogba's goals flew in will calm a few who believe the Russian's love for the club has waned somewhat of late. HULL VERDICT: This was a very encouraging display from a side tipped by many to suffer a tough season. They probably just about deserved a point after a battling display. CHELSEA VERDICT: The jury is still out for now. Champions tend to win games when they are not at their best and if Chelsea start taking their chances, they should be a formidable unit.

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