A keenly disputed penalty, converted three times by a nerveless Frank Lampard, ensured Chelsea extended their lead at the head of the Premier League but the performance of Carlo Ancelotti’s side was anything but championship class.
On another day, and with another referee, it is likely that Chelsea would have failed in their attempt to capitalise on Manchester United’s slip at Fulham.
Instead, they received a generous helping hand from Mike Dean who adjudged Matthew Upson’s challenge on Daniel Sturridge to be unfair on the advice of his assistant when just about everybody else in the stadium could see the defender had played the ball.
Dean has awarded 23 penalties this season, 10 more than any other Premier League referee, but this had to be his worst decision.
Lampard is never the most popular man at Upton Park and has routinely endured miserable abuse ever since he left the club to join Chelsea.
As the man entrusted to convert the controversial penalty, that wasn’t about to change but he kept his nerve commendably as Dean made him re-take the kick twice after team-mates encroached in the area.
The midfielder duly converted a hat-trick of penalties, but registered only one, thus ensuring he was elevated to the status of future pub quiz question in years to come.
And he may also acquire the more meaningful reward of a third Premier League winner’s medal if the title race goes to the wire and this point proves decisive.
At the moment, neither United nor Chelsea seem capable of making a decisive run for top spot with Carlo Ancelotti’s side clearly out of form and with just one win to their name from their last four outings.
The decisive stage of the race is still to come, though, and so far Ancelotti’s side at least appear to have more resilience than their main rivals.
They had to have against a West Ham side that are clearly in desperate trouble but who at last appear to have found some reserves of fighting spirit.
Portsmouth’s unexpected victory against Liverpool on Saturday meant that defeat would send West Ham to the foot of the table on goal difference, burdening Gianfranco Zola’s side with the unwanted job of bucking the historical trend that has seen the bottom club relegated in all but one of the Premier League’s previous 17 seasons.
Such things weigh heavy on the minds of players and managers and with Gianfranco Zola having conceded in the build-up to this match that he was so desperate for a break, he was thinking about bringing in a sports psychologist, that was certainly one bad omen the Italian wanted to avoid.
Zola has maintained throughout his side’s disappointing season that their performances had not been getting the rewards they deserved.
That may have been true up to last weekend but successive defeats at Birmingham and Bolton had confirmed they are approaching a state of crisis.
The scale of the task confronting them yesterday was summed up by the fact that Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, fit again and restored to the starting line-up, had scored 13 league goals, one more than the combined efforts of the entire Hammers starting line-up.
To have any chance of springing a shock, Zola’s side knew they would have to rediscover their commitment of earlier in the campaign and cut out the careless defensive mistakes that have proved so costly in recent games.
Initially there seemed little chance they would be able to succeed, with Chelsea quickly settling into a pattern of territorial dominance and Lampard producing an excellent save from Robert Green with a crisply struck shot in the seventh minute.
The home side was understandably not brimming with confidence although the link play between Alessandro Diamanti and Guillermo Franco offered promise while Scott Parker and Mark Noble were impressively tenacious.
The problem for West Ham, though, was that they simply weren’t creating good enough chances while Chelsea should have gone ahead in the 23rd minute when Branislav Ivanovic’s header was calmly cleared off the goal-line by Parker.
It was noticeable, however, that Zola’s side acquired more poise as the first half progressed and they realised that the league leaders were having an off day.
Jack Collison forced Petr Cech to save with his feet after collecting Herita Ilunga’s left wing cross and a second forward run from the midfielder produced West Ham’s opening goal one minute before the break.
Franco picked out Collison with a neat reverse pass and as the Wales international advanced into the box, Ashley Cole dived in with an ill judged challenge that left Dean with no option but to point to the penalty spot. Alessandro Diamanti converted with aplomb.
Ancelotti made a double substitution at the interval and Chelsea improved after the break but it is debatable whether they would have worked up a sufficient head of steam to equalise had Dean and his assistant not helped them out.
Even after Lampard had scored, West Ham continued to look the more dangerous side and Cech had to be alert to beat away Diamanti’s shot as the home side sniffed an unlikely victory. In the end they were unable to find a second goal. But after the bitter after-taste of Lampard’s penalty has faded, both sides may come to view this game as a turning point in the campaign.
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral) 5: Got it badly wrong for Chelsea’s penalty when he trusted the advice of his assistant rather than the evidence of his own eyes.
MATCH RATING: **** The fear was West Ham would be rolled over in a one-sided affair but Gianfranco Zola’s side turned the game into a contest that could have gone either way.
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