Didier Drogba showed Chelsea will not give up the English Premiership title without a fight as his late goal clinched a 1-0 win against Newcastle on Wednesday.
Jose Mourinho’s side are now five points behind leaders Manchester United and should have renewed belief they can overhaul Sir Alex Ferguson’s side after this hard-fought victory.
Chelsea can heap more pressure on United if they win at Everton on Sunday as their match takes place before Ferguson’s team visit West Ham later the same day.
The champions were well below their best for long periods against resilient Newcastle and had to wait until 16 minutes from full-time before Drogba finally made the breakthrough at Stamford Bridge.
It took a fine combination from two men Mourinho had left on the bench to win the match as Andriy Shevchenko set up Drogba for his 15th goal this season.
Shevchenko has endured a miserable time since his £30-million pre-season move from AC Milan and it was hard to avoid the suspicion that Mourinho had finally lost patience with the Ukraine striker when his name appeared among the substitutes.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had described Shevchenko as a broken-down Ferrari earlier this week, but the forward was running smoothly enough during his cameo appearance.
Salomon Kalou created an early chance for Shaun Wright-Phillips with a flick from Geremi’s throw, but the Chelsea winger completely miscued his shot from no more than six yards.
Kalou looked determined to seize his chance and the Côte d’Ivoire forward’s surging run past three defenders set up Frank Lampard for a long-range strike.
Newcastle have been ravaged by an injury crisis that left them without 13 senior players for the trip to London, but Glenn Roeder’s threadbare side almost snatched the lead in the 16th minute.
Obafemi Martins hassled Ricardo Carvalho into conceding a corner and James Milner’s delivery was headed on to the crossbar by French midfielder Antoine Sibierski.
Newcastle’s Giuseppe Rossi is on loan from Manchester United and the tiny striker almost did his Old Trafford teammates a huge favour with a fierce effort that was just off target in the 35th minute.
Chelsea were uncharacteristically subdued and it took 40 minutes before Shay Given was forced to make a save, and even then the Newcastle captain easily held Lampard’s shot.
Mourinho rang the changes at half-time, with Claude Makelele and Drogba introduced as he tried to shake his team out of their lethargy. The substitutions nearly reaped an instant reward as Drogba flashed a header wide from Arjen Robben’s cross.
Given had to use his legs to block Robben’s low inswinging free-kick on the hour, but that was a rare sight of goal for the champions.
With the gap to United in danger of widening to a formidable margin, Mourinho’s last throw of the dice was to send on Shevchenko with 25 minutes to go. His gamble paid off in spectacular fashion as Shevchenko helped Chelsea end Newcastle’s defiant rearguard action in the 74th minute.
Robben picked out Shevchenko’s run into the penalty area and the Ukrainian’s cross was perfectly weighted for Drogba to turn past Given from close range. — Sapa-AFP