Ballack hero for Chelsea

Newcastle 0 Chelsea 2

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Michael Ballack was again Chelsea’s hero as the Londoners took the Premier League title race down the final game of the season.

The German, whose double against Manchester United last week took them level with their rivals at the top, broke a stubborn Newcastle with a crucial 60th-minute opener at St James’ Park.

But it was not until Florent Malouda added a second eight minutes from time that the points were safe as the spirited Magpies did their best to preserve a seven-game unbeaten run.

They had needed the help of the crossbar to keep out John Terry’s 53rd-minute header, but had it not been for the Chelsea skipper’s goalline clearance 16 minutes before the break, Michael Owen would have fired the home side ahead.

Newcastle had their chances to level as time ran down with Obafemi Martins seeing his blistering effort deflected just wide by Ricardo Carvalho.

However, Chelsea’s class was ultimately made to tell on a day when Kevin Keegan was given the best illustration yet of how far his side has to go to compete an a level playing field with the big boys.

Avram Grant’s men head into next weekend’s clash with Bolton knowing victory might not be enough to lift the trophy if United win at Wigan, because of their inferior goal difference, but they have a chance.

It was perhaps testament to the turnaround in fortunes engineered by Keegan on Tyneside that his opposite number opted to change formation as well as personnel in the search for three points.

Out went Ashley Cole, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, and Salomon Kalou from the side which clinched a place in the Champions League final and in, among others, came Malouda and Nicolas Anelka.

They were deployed in a three-pronged front line either side of Didier Drogba, but such was the tenacity with which the Magpies defended, none of the trio managed to put pressure on goalkeeper Steve Harper.

Indeed, their best chance of the first half fell to Ballack 10 minutes before the break when he ran onto Michael Essien’s measured pass, but sliced a left-foot shot harmlessly wide.

In fact, most of the half’s better chances fell to Newcastle, who perhaps made more of a lesser share of the possession.

Owen left England team-mate Terry for dead with just six minutes gone to collect the imperious Nicky Butt’s pass, but lifted his first-time effort over Petr Cech’s crossbar.

But with Martins making life intensely difficult for Paulo Ferreira down the Chelsea right, the Magpies threatened repeatedly and might have taken the lead with 29 minutes gone.

The Nigerian controlled a high ball superbly on his chest for Mark Viduka to stab in a shot which Cech saved, but the rebound seemed to fall invitingly to Owen.

The £17m-man steered his shot firmly towards goal but Terry was in exactly the right place at the right time to save his side.

Chelsea responded by pinning Newcastle back inside their own half, but Harper was able to watch long-range efforts from Anelka and Mikel John Obi sail wide of the target, and it was the Magpies who finished the first half the stronger.

Viduka’s failure to re-appear after the break – he is due to have an injection for a persistent Achilles problem – prompted Alan Smith’s introduction, but it was the visitors who went close when Carvalho headed Malouda’s 50th-minute corner wide.

However, Terry went much closer three minutes later as Chelsea started to turn the screw.

Malouda was the provider once again with another right-wing corner, and this time his captain climbed highest to thunder a header against the bar as Newcastle enjoyed a huge slice of good fortune.

But they finally fell behind on the hour when Ballack met Drogba’s free-kick unmarked in front of goal to glance home a close-range header.

Lampard replaced Anelka with 24 minutes remaining as Grant adopted his more accustomed 4-4-2 formation, but it was Newcastle who almost hit back as the game entered its final 20 minutes.

First Martins saw Carvalho deflect his shot inches wide with Cech stranded, and then Owen only just failed to connect with Butt’s mishit effort in front of goal.

Harper pulled off a smart reaction save to deny Ballack from distance and the game was anything but over.

However, Malouda’s neat finish from Lampard’s 82nd-minute pass cemented the win as Newcastle’s resistance was finally broken.

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