Reviewed by John Aizlewood for The Sunday Times
Red card for fiery Michael Essien
Derby v Chelsea
Derby 0 Chelsea 2
They say there are no easy games in the Premier League. As most of Derby County’s opponents this season have discovered, sometimes there are. This game, though, was different and this was a performance upon which they can build, although for all their winning endeavour, they still do not know how to win or even score, even if referee Andre Marriner’s decision to disallow Kenny Miller’s 65th-minute strike for offside when they were only a solitary goal in arrears was incorrect.
A stoppage-time red card for Michael Essien, on as a 75th-minute substitute for Steve Sidwell, for an ugly elbow on Miller soured Chelsea’s night, and drew from the manager, Avram Grant, a claim referees may be making easy pickings of his players.
"I have a feeling we are easy targets in the way they give us red cards," Grant said. "Since I came here we have had three red cards, two that were absolutely not."
Chelsea, though, will be satisfied with their evening’s work. They came to town, picked some of their more peripheral superstars and won with clinical endeavour. The three points only kept them in the fourth place that Liverpool briefly prised from them at lunchtime, but the Stamford Bridge machine is beginning to crank itself up again.
September seems so long ago, but back then few would have given Grant much hope of not merely holding the dam that seemed about to break around Stamford Bridge after Jose Mourinho’s departure, but of rebuilding the entire reservoir. Grant’s first-game defeat at Old Trafford was followed by an unbeaten 11-match run of mostly swashbuckling victories.
Already, the Special One has been cast into the vaults of Stamford Bridge history, his folk memory gaining a sepia hue to match that of Roy Bentley, Charlie Cooke and Roberto Di Matteo. Chelsea rolled north yesterday without Didier Drogba, Petr Cech and Roberto Carvalho, but buoyed by the return of John Terry - three days too late, some might muse - and Joe Cole, albeit only as far as the bench where he smouldered alongside Essien, such was Grant’s confidence in his fringe players, a description that now - as it did under Mourinho – includes Andriy Shevchenko.
In glum contrast, Derby kicked off not having scored in eight hours and 41 minutes of Premier League football. A debacle at home to West Ham United before the international break had left them marooned firmly at the bottom of the table, licking wounds that are already seen by some as mortal. With centre-backs Claude Davis and Dean Leacock recovered from injuries, manager Billy Davies tinkered yet again, utilising Leacock in front of that leaky defence, a role, curiously, Jon Obi Mikel fulfilled for Chelsea, although Mikel’s role was to start attacks rather than bolster defence.
Derby started eagerly, Craig Fagan trying to pick a Chelsea pocket or two and Giles Barnes matching his youthful gusto with a worldlywise way. Indeed, for the first 10 minutes, they were the more enterprising team. Chelsea – whose England players, even the Terry and Ashley Cole – were at sixes and sevens with Shevchenko again playing like a man with legs of lead. Then, 17 minutes in, they attacked and scored.
Mikel found Frank Lampard – the butt of the loudest jeers every time he touched the ball, and resoundingly booed off when substituted in the 89th minute – whose neat through-ball reached Sidwell. As Derby back-pedalled, too late and too slowly seeing the crisis developing around them, Salomon Kalou nipped in to tuck imperiously past Stephen Bywater. As the ball nestled in Bywater’s net, the hitherto fervid atmosphere evaporated into the drizzle and you sensed, even at this early stage, that Derby’s moment had already gone.
Soon, Bywater was making a thrilling, flying save from the industrious Shaun Wright-Phillips after Andy Griffin had been too easily outpaced and Kalou missed the most straightforward of chances when he ballooned over from almost under the bar after Davis had rashly nodded Wright-Phillips’s cross into his path. Indeed, Chelsea had already began to give the impression they were thinking more of Rosenborg on Wednesday than the second half and by the end of the first, they were controlling the game at walking pace.
In the second, Chelsea’s remit was clearly to keep slowing the game down; Derby’s to raise the tempo as, when and however they could. Miller whipped a 48th-minute shot past Carlo Cudicini and the far post, but the Italian was finally tested when he dived to save Craig Fagan’s drive. Even so, for all their menacing flurries, the home side could never quite generate a head of steam. The clincher began when Shevchenko scythed through the back of Barnes’s ankles. As Barnes lay prostrate, Marriner waved play on, Lampard ran through to shoot against the post and the rebound fell perfectly to Wright-Phillips, who poked home.