Victor Anichebe came off the bench to halt Chelsea’s title momentum and secure West Brom a potentially vital point with a late equalizer at the Hawthorns.
After their rousing victory over Manchester City and the brilliance of Eden Hazard to inspire them to a comfortable win over Newcastle United, this was a performance in stark contrast and, in truth, one more in keeping with their season as a whole.
West Brom, who remain in the relegation zone and without a win under Pepe Mel, looked to frustrate Chelsea and for a long time were successful in their game plan. The visitors played much of the encounter in second gear, but got what looked like being a crucial breakthrough courtesy of Branislav Ivanovic deep into first-half injury time. From there only one outcome looked on the cards.
Instead, Chelsea missed a couple of chances to make the result safe after the break and then became increasingly fixed on trying to hold what they had against a West Brom side that were putting them under growing pressure. And with three minutes of normal time remaining, Anichebe gave his side a reward for their determined efforts. It meant that now for all three of Mel’s home games in charge, his side have come back from a goal down to secure a point. This was easily the most impressive of the trio.
For Mourinho there will be bitter disappointment. While his side were far from their best, it is still a lead that he would have expected them to hold onto. Instead they miss the chance to cement their place in the Premier League summit and face the prospect of being surpassed by both Arsenal and Manchester City should they win their respective matches on Wednesday.
While starting off defending solidly with their two banks of four, West Brom were looking to their two pacey strikers to cause Chelsea problems going forward. And there were signs that they could do just that. Thievy Bifouma, on his first start since joining on loan from Espanyol, was looking lively but just failed with his final product on a couple of occasions. First his pull back failed to reach his partner Saido Berahino and then from the youngster’s header down he dallied too long with a chance to shoot before the ball eventually fell to Chris Brunt who fired wide.
With Chelsea’s attacking midfield three all looking to come inside, there was very little space for them to operate as West Brom packed that area of the field. Precious little in the way of goal-scoring opportunities went Chelsea’s way, with the best they could muster being a couple of crosses that West Brom just kept away from Chelsea attackers.
There were just signs that the visitors were starting to build some momentum toward the end of the period, and with almost the last kick of the half they went in front. From a second corner in quick succession, West Brom’s marking disappeared to allow David Luiz to get a flick on and Ivanovic to be free at the back post to sweep a shot past Ben Foster.
Having gone behind, it was always going to be a mammoth task for West Brom to come out of their shell and find an equalizer. They had done just that against Everton and Liverpool, but Mourinho’s Chelsea have been equipped with far more resilience of late.
With a 1-0 advantage, Mourinho went into his familiar, trusted strategy; able to have his team sit back and not take any risks, while ready to exploit any opportunities that should come their way as a result of their opponents’ need to go forward.
And Chelsea did have their chances on the break. Yet they, and Hazard in particular, weren’t in the same ruthless mood of recent games. As the minutes wore on, West Brom increasingly stepped up the pitch and came into the ascendency as Chelsea went into full on what-we-have-we-hold mode. With sheer will rather than any great quality they began to create openings. James Morrison and Bifouma both failed to find the target with half chances, before Brunt came closest with a low effort across the face of goal. With Ivanovic and Petr Cech having a subsequent fiery disagreement on the pitch, it was clear Chelsea were rattled. And with three minutes remaining they succumbed.
Berahino, moved over to the left as Mel brought on two strikers, swung in an in-swinging cross and Anichebe escaped the attentions of David Luiz to nod home in front of Cech to secure an equalizer for the second straight home game. West Brom were good value for it, too, and if any team was going to grab all three points then it was more likely to be the hosts.