Blues’ title ambitions fade at the Bridge

ENGLISH football has enjoyed some decadent days just recently, but this served as the most austere of reality checks.

Compared to the goal-laden entertainment at Anfield and, indeed, Stamford Bridge in the last two weeks, this was turgid stuff, and by the end it was not just the paucity of entertainment which was causing consternation amid the home faithful.

Chelsea’s title challenge was already hanging by the slenderest of threads and their concession of two points means even that has snapped. Manchester United, six points clear with a game in hand are now out of sight for Guus Hiddink’s team. It is now up to Liverpool.

This was also the cagiest of dry runs for next month’s FA Cup final. Both teams could draw comfort — particularly Everton, who were sprightly in the first half and heroic in the second — but, even so, this was not an occasion that will have purists relishing their Wembley meeting on May 30.

Hiddink’s biggest relief was in seeing his players trudge from the turf with bones and muscles intact. Chelsea would consider defeat in the FA Cup final a mere inconvenience if they had hoisted the Champions League trophy in Rome three days earlier, but for that to happen, they need their key performers in prime condition for the semi-final meeting with Barcelona.

With that in mind, it was no wonder that the biggest gasps of the evening here were reserved not for firecracker shots but for the sight of home players crumpling to the turf. The most alarming came in injury time, when Petr Cech, having raced out of his area to clear, was floored by Jo. He needed two minutes of treatment but was able to complete his evening’s work. Cech has been a poor imitation of his former self in recent weeks but this was a timely return to form.

The tone was set in the seventh minute when he found himself face-to-face with Jo, after the striker was set clear by Tim Cahill. The Brazilian, ignoring the unmarked Leon Osman, drilled towards the far corner, only for Cech to save with his legs.

If that block was merely routine, the one which denied Cahill 12 minutes before the interval was anything but. The Australian took Jo’s cross with his back to goal, span in one whirling movement and struck a low shot which forced Cech to spring to his right to parry.

More flimsy Chelsea defending just before the interval allowed Jo another clear run on goal but the striker slipped at the crucial moment and the chance was gone.

Chelsea’s first half attacking efforts were summed up by one shot from Frank Lampard which landed in the upper tier of the Shed End. At least there was more purpose to their second-half display. Nicolas Anelka skimmed a shot across goal and John Terry’s 35-yard drive brought a sprawling save from Tim Howard, before the moment, in the 64th minute, that anguished the home fans.

Yobo failed to deal with a punt downfield and Florent Malouda nipped in behind him. The French winger appeared to hauled back by Yobo outside the area. Chelsea howled for a red card but Mark Halsey waved play on.

Chelsea streamed forward in search of a late winner but their luck was out. Salomon Kalou headed wastefully over and then saw a screaming shot headed over by the bar by the exceptional Lescott.

There might have been a late sting in the tail at either end. Steven Pienaar slashed wide at the near post when well placed before Drogba rocked the crossbar with an explosive volley in stoppage time, but this was a game neither side deserved to win.

CHELSEA (4-3-3): Cech 7, Ivanovic 6, Alex 7, Terry 7, A Cole 6, Essien 6 (Mikel 60, 5), Lampard 6, Ballack 5, Anelka 5 (Kalou 60, 6), Drogba 6, Malouda 6 (Di Santo 76).

EVERTON (4-4-1-1): Howard 7, Jacobsen 6 (Jagielka 87, 6), Yobo 7, Lescott 9, Baines 7, Osman 7 (Rodwell 89, 5), Neville 6, Castillo 7, Pienaar 7, Cahill 8, Jo 6 (Saha 90, 5).


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