Blues take title race to the wire

MAYBE Alex Ferguson will have to come up with a new description. For the first time in almost 20 years the top two teams in the country go into the final game separated only by goal difference. This is more than just ‘‘squeaky-bum time’’.

Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan may have launched a scathing post-match attack on the predictability of the Premier League, but the Newcastle manager was talking about the make-up of the top four rather than what has turned into an intriguing two horse title race.

Chelsea kept the pressure on Manchester United as they cast off the self-imposed shackles of an ultra-cautious first-half to extend their unbeaten Premier League run to 20 games thanks to goals from Michael Ballack and Florent Malouda.

‘‘We had the upper hand before the break,’’ Keegan insisted. ‘‘But we knew they had to come at us more in the second-half and that proved to be the case.’’

Leaders United remain heavy favourites to retain their crown, but Chelsea manager Avram Grant remains nothing if not defiant. ‘‘We’ve given them a good, battle and we’ll never give up. We will fight to the finish.

‘‘Nobody really thought about us as title candidates but only goal difference separates us so we’ll see what happens. United are in a better position but they’re not in an easy position.’’

Glowing in his praise for Chelsea, Keegan, however was rather less charitable about the stranglehold exerted by the top four.

Even with the vast spending power of billionaire owner Mike Ashley, the normally confident Newcastle manager conceded his side have little hope of breaking the dominance of the English football’s all-powerful quartet during the length of his three-year St James’ Park contract.

‘‘We’re a million miles away,’’ he conceded. ‘‘This league is in danger of becoming one of the most boring but the greatest in the world. We’re trying to win the other league that’s going on in the Premier League, below the top four.

‘If I can get three or four players in we might be able to win the second division of the Premier League.

‘‘With the greatest respect I can’t say I’ve got fire power like Chelsea, and over a season they’re going to have you. The only games the top four are going to lose are to each other.

“The way the league is this club won’t be a Champions League club in the three years of my contract.

‘‘It’s difficult to see anyone breaking into the top four. We’re the fifth or sixth biggest club in terms of fans and turnover and we can’t get in there. To finish fifth would be a massive achievement but you’d be mad to say we can get in the top four next year.’’

Keegan’s side matched Chelsea until early in the second-half when the visitors started to step through the gears simply not available to the Newcastle manager, who saw John Terry hack the hosts’ best opening from Michael Owen off the line in the first-half.

At the other end, Terry’s near-post header from a Malouda corner crashed back off the crossbar straight after the break as the Londoners finally started to show their attacking intent in a game they had to win to retain any hope of a third title in four years.

It was a change of approach which finally bore fruit shortly afterwards as Ballack made up for a glaring first-half miss to glance in the first goal Newcastle have conceded at home in more than two months.

The German international put the visitors in front in a tense encounter as he rose to head home Didier Drogba’s 60th minute free-kick, controversially awarded for Abdoulaye Faye’s challenge on Malouda.

Malouda sealed the points eight minutes from time after a slick passing move involving Michael Essien, substitute Frank Lampard and Ballack released the midfielder to slot his fourth goal of the season past exposed keeper Steve Harper.

‘‘You just had to look at their bench,’’ admitted Keegan ruefully after surrendering a seven-game unbeaten run. ‘‘They had Shevchenko who’s worth £28m, Lampard and Cole to call on. Then there’s Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright Phillips who are not even stripped.’’

Man of the match: Michael Ballack (Chelsea): After his penalty in the victory over Manchester United, the German international’s latest goal contribution helped to keep Chelsea’s title ambitions alive. His 60th minute header allied to a prolific work-rate made the midfielder by far the visitors’ stand-out performer.

NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-3-1-2) Harper 7; Taylor 7, Beye 6, Faye 6, Enrique 6 (N’Zogbia 78, 5); Geremi 5 (Duff 71, 4), Butt 6, Barton 6; Owen 5; Viduka 6 (Smith 46, 4), Martins 5. Substitutes not used: Cacapa, Forster (gk).

CHELSEA (4-4-2) Cech 7; Ferreira 6, Carvalho 6 (Alex 79, 5), Terry 7, Bridge 6; Essien 7, Mikel 6, Ballack 8, Malouda 7; Drogba 6 (Shevckenko 87, 6), Anelka 5 (Lampard 66,7). Substitutes not used: J Cole, Cudicini (gk).

Referee: Steve Bennett (Kent) 7. Well placed to rule correctly on all the major incidents, Bennett can be more than satisfied with his afternoon’s work.

Match rating: 2/5

Only when Chelsea came out of their self-imposed shell in the second-half did the contest belatedly come to life.

Crowd: 52,305.


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