JUST when Chelsea were revelling in their new-found role as purveyors of beautiful football, John Terry proved they can also win ugly last night as they edged past Roma at Stamford Bridge.
Captain Terry’s header from a Frank Lampard corner in the 78th minute, was enough to win a miserable game against defensive experts that looked to be heading for a goalless draw until the home side finally found a moment of inspiration.
Manager Luis Felipe Scolari insisted he was just as happy to win ugly as he was pleasing the purists. “Sometimes 1-0 is more important than 5-0 because we need to respect the opponent. We have only one more game at our home ground and we needed these three points.
“When I was in Portugal and we played against England I was afraid when Terry came into the area for corners. Now I am here I say to him I expect him to score goals. It is very good for us.”
The performance was a long way from last weekend’s 5-0 victory at Middlesbrough in which Chelsea gave fans — and boss Roman Abramovich — a glimpse of the sexy football they have been longing for. But the fact Scolari’s team came through such a tactical and gritty test surely augurs well for the long term.
So well has the season gone so far that until last night Scolari must have been thinking management in England is child’s play. But Roma provided him with the kind of test no team in the Premiership has so far been able to muster, and he just about passed it.
Roma’s high-energy defensive tactics, in which they strangled Chelsea attacks at source, appeared to catch the home side unawares.
Scolari had warned his players not to underestimate the Italians, who have improved this season since losing at home to Romanian minnows Cluj in one of the biggest upsets in Champions League history. And he was right.
The Serie A giants rushed Chelsea’s usually imperious players into miss-hitting passes, broke their rhythm and tried every trick to unsettle their opponents — with no little success.
The irony was that on a day when Chelsea’s injury crisis finally began to ease it was the very fact he changed a winning side in order to bring back Deco and Ricardo Carvalho that caused him so many headaches.
The game passed Deco by for long periods as Roma denied him time and space — tactics which also effectively wiped out the threat of Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou.
Frank Lampard did hit the crossbar with a well-worked free-kick in the first half and forced goalkeeper Doni into two saves but there was little else for Chelsea fans, who were all handed 1970s-style free scarves before kick-off, to get excited about.
Chelsea’s matchday announcer showed fans how to twirl their scarves Italian-style above their heads but was given short shrift as punters headed for a half-time cup of tea wondering how Scolari would turn it all around.
The Brazilian responded by bringing on countryman Juliano Belletti, a defender–cum-midfielder who scored a wonderful goal at Boro but still found himself dropped for this encounter.
He replaced the ineffective Malouda, who appeared to be heading for a red card following a first-half booking and a non-stop battle of petulant tackles, shirt-pulls and shoving contests with direct opponent Cicinho.
Belletti’s arrival sparked Chelsea into action, with Kalou having a header saved. But they were well marshalled and with so little on the bench Scolari had to turn to teenage strike Di Santo with 15 minutes to go.
Fortunately, however, he was saved from the ignominy of a goalless draw when Terry got his head to a Lampard corner 12 minutes from time and sent it arrowing past keeper Doni.
Lampard could have made the game safe with another free-kick that clipped the woodwork but in the end a battered and bruised Chelsea were relieved just to get the job done.
Not pretty, not exciting. But the result says a lot about Chelsea’s chances of winning silverware all the same.
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