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Nov 5, 2011

Blue-sky thinking

The moment Blackburn's beleaguered manager had been awaiting arrived 25 minutes in. "Steve Kean," came the chorus from the Darwen End. "We want you to stay." There was only one slight problem: the ones chanting were Chelsea fans. Their cue? The plane that flew over Ewood Park proclaiming: "Steve Kean out."

Banned from bringing banners to the ground, Blackburn supporters are sufficiently resourceful to take to the air. Freedom of speech still exists at altitude. And yet, whatever the merits of their new vantage point, past judgments were being applied to current events. While Kean's record deteriorates - with three wins in 25 league games, he is in greater need of a bailout from the super-rich than the Greek government - Blackburn's displays have improved. The corner may have been turned, in performances if not results, but minds have been made up. For many, Kean cruised past the point of no return. He cannot win a popularity contest; his side, even when performing well, struggle to win a game.

A typically clinical Frank Lampard condemned them to defeat and, in the process, averted a third successive league loss for Chelsea. A wonderfully efficient footballer delivered the decisive touch in what used to be Chelsea's signature scoreline. No longer - this was their maiden 1-0 of the league season and a first clean sheet since the opening game at Stoke - and it represented a triumph of pragmatism, rather than the purism Andre Villas-Boas was supposed to espouse.

But as the Portuguese himself admitted: "We had to suffer a little bit." Petr Cech's suffering was physical as well as mental, the goalkeeper sustaining a suspected broken nose when he, Ashley Cole and Yakubu collided after the striker shot wide.

After seven minutes of treatment on the pitch, Cech carried on. "We asked him at half time and he wanted to continue," Villas-Boas said. "It shows the bravery and the commitment." It was required, too, as Cech denied Yakubu, Morten Gamst Pedersen and Grant Hanley before Branislav Ivanovic headed against his own bar.

"I don't think you can continue to play like that without going on a very, very strong run," Kean said but, after insisting his side played well after poor showings in the past, more reasonable assessments somehow seem less creditable. "We are confident we can climb the table." They need to and Rovers' recent run, against Tottenham, Newcastle and Norwich, has indicated an upturn may be on the horizon for a manager who insisted he did not turn his gaze skyward when the plane circled above Ewood Park.

Chelsea have a greater taste for heights and are unworried how they get there. "It was important to win, no matter what," Villas-Boas said. Of almost equal importance, after Robin van Persie's evisceration of their defence in last week's demolition derby, was to keep a clean sheet.

It was achieved, albeit awkwardly, after a rethink and a reshuffle. Villas-Boas' back four appeared to be stationed a little nearer their goal and, if the right half of the defence still seems fragile - both Yakubu's chances came from openings fashioned there - there was an added benefit to the manager's tinkerings.

Ivanovic was shifted to full-back where he delivered some enticing crosses before one brought the breakthrough. The Serb's ball in was struck with unexpected expertise with the outside of his right foot. Lampard, plunging forwards, headed it in. "It was a good goal," Villas-Boas added. "The cross from Ivanovic is inch perfect and Frank has found his timing to arrive in the box, like the old days."

Reminders of the past extended beyond the scoreline. This was the sort of result Chelsea specialised in producing when Villas-Boas' duties were confined to scouting the opposition: hard-fought 1-0 wins away from home. It was a blast from their past.

He is expected to bring some blue-sky thinking to a familiar question: how do Chelsea move on into a new era? Kean, a manager staring at a precipitous descent into the Championship, believes things are looking up for Rovers. But pigs, rather than planes, might fly before Blackburn supporters draw up banners and pay for aircraft pronouncing "Steve Kean in".

MAN OF THE MATCH: Frank Lampard. He illustrated his continuing importance to Chelsea with another vital goal. Nothing spectacular apart from that, but he was the epitome of reliability.

BLACKBURN VERDICT: Ewood Park used to be a fortress but with five defeats in six home games - albeit after welcoming Manchester City, Tottenham and now Chelsea to Lancashire - they are in desperate need of a result on their own turf. It helps that more winnable games are coming up and that, with Mauro Formica influential, a younger side are beginning to gel. But they cannot keep a clean sheet, and their profligacy in attack bodes badly.

CHELSEA VERDICT: They remain a work in progress. Fernando Torres was left on the bench for the first half before replacing the ineffectual Florent Malouda, but his troubles continued, the striker missing a gilt-edged chance in injury time. Before then, Daniel Sturridge was granted the opportunity in the role he covets, as the main striker, but he couldn't make the most of it; that Juan Mata had perhaps his poorest Chelsea game hardly helped him. With the limited John Obi Mikel preferred to the promising Oriol Romeu as the midfield anchorman, Villas-Boas opted for conservatism in midfield. On this occasion, it paid off.

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