Ominous Chelsea masquerade as champions

CHELSEA 3
Malouda 6, Lampard 32 & 90

BIRMINGHAM CITY 0

In theory, the African Cup of Nations was supposed to show-up glaring deficiencies in Chelsea’s squad. In practice, it has simply allowed them to peacock the sheer strength in depth they possess.

Four games, four wins and seventeen goals later, and a potentially tricky period of games without key members has been negotiated with the minimum of fuss. A seven-goal hammering of a free-falling Sunderland was sandwiched by two routine cup run-outs, so the arrival of Birmingham City – unbeaten in 15 – represented Chelsea’s sternest test since the loss of the Africans. Alex McLeish’s men are the only side to prevent the Blues from scoring in all competitions this season, achieved in the goalless draw at St Andrew’s in December. Any notion of that feat being duplicated was put to bed after just five minutes.

The draw at Birmingham came during the period now universally described as a ‘blip’ for Chelsea. It’s safe to assume that blip is over. Didier Drogba’s presence has not been missed, and has subversively allowed Ancelotti to adapt to a more expansive 4-3-3 formation, which has resulted in the Londoners producing a string of fluid displays. In much the same way as Jose Mourinho switched tact to rich dividends, it may prove the additional width provided with three forwards will be Carlo Ancelotti’s plan of prosper from now on. Where the diamond concentrated play through the middle of the park, the facility of using two widemen creates ample space all over the pitch. Birmingham simply could not cope with Chelsea as they passed and probed, manipulating the ball around the beleaguered visiting cohorts.

At times, such was the movement and interchanging of Chelsea’s football, it was difficult to tell who was playing where, and this blur of blue dashes shredded City in the first half. Two goals were netted, but it could easily have been more. In the absence of the Africans, Ancelotti has used the opportunity to not only blood Daniel Sturridge, but also to get some minutes into the legs of some of the peripheral members of the squad. Florent Malouda has scored three times in January, Joe Cole’s rehabilitation is almost complete and Deco, Juliano Belletti and Yuri Zhirkov have been primed for the push. If anything, the Cup of Nations has strengthened Chelsea’s title claims.

John Terry used his programme notes to call on his troops to perform like champions and it was an ominous response for an outfit looking fitter and healthier than their pursuers in most departments. In recent weeks the ailments of the Arsenal and Man Utd player pools have been highlighted in the FA Cup, the moment has been and gone when Chelsea were supposed to stumble. The lead at the top of the Premier League may be a slender one, but Chelsea are holding all the aces. Barring injuries to Michael Essien and Jos

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