Scrappy victory

CHELSEA'S RICARDO CARVALHO celebrates his goal against Middlesbrough-

Chelsea�s pursuit has been maintained at a stagger rather than a sprint. Victory at Stamford Bridge hauled them back up to second, and within five points of the top, but this display will hardly have had Manchester United quaking in their boots. Had Afonso Alves brought the form that inflated his transfer fee as a potent scorer in the Dutch league to England, then the home side�s game of catch-up might have been rendered hopeless. Regardless, this is a club sensing conspiracy.

The ramifications of the Premier League�s decision to bring forward Chelsea�s fixture at Everton by 48 hours to a Thursday night in April, thereby ensuring the game can be televised on Sky, has whipped up a sense of injustice. United and Arsenal will have six days between league fixtures that week.

Avram Grant�s side host Wigan on the Monday, on a rival television channel, then must travel to Goodison Park three days later. �I don�t understand why we need to play then, bemoaned the manager. �It�s unfair. When you are coming to the end of the season, it should be equal for all the teams involved."

Chelsea make uncomfortable victims but it is hard not to sympathise at such a farcical schedule. The League points to restrictive European Commission directives, and the demands of satellite broadcasters, but common sense appears to have been jettisoned. �It�s unfair, what�s happening, added Grant. �We need to fight in any way that we can to make it a fair decision."

A spokesman for the club insisted the decision had been made solely on television grounds � �... and as a result of the Premier League board failing to resolve schedule issues between broadcasters � yet the League�s stance is set in stone. Chelsea will have to put up with an unnecessary fixture pile-up and hope that momentum is with them at the time.

It had threatened to drain away against Middlesbrough. The ease with which the hosts had gone ahead, with Ricardo Carvalho rising effortlessly for Wayne Bridge�s free-kick to plant his first goal of the season beyond Mark Schwarzer with a glorious header, had set a deceptive tone. Chelsea anticipated a stroll. "We were soft and floppy, conceded Gareth Southgate of the first-half performance which saw his side sink deep and allow the home side the freedom of Stamford Bridge. �It was as if we�d come to admire Chelsea and swap shirts at the end of the game."

Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou might have scored, the former fluffing a free header, but the contest drifted. Sleepiness set in. The cameras focussed on dozing home supporters in the crowd as if this pocket of the capital had forgotten that British Summer Time was upon us. It took Alves� arrival to shrug the sides awake.

The Brazilian was summoned from the substitutes� bench just after the hour to make his eighth Boro appearance since a �12m mid-winter move from the Dutch league and Heerenveen. The 27-year-old remains goalless, though quite how he failed to pilfer his first reward in England almost defied belief.

He might have had a hat-trick within 17 minutes of his arrival, first steering Stewart Downing�s excellent cross wide and then beating Carlo Cudicini to the ball some 30 yards out only to strike the far post from distance with the goal gaping invitingly. The fragility that has been evident in recent weeks at the heart of Chelsea�s defence persisted, set pieces suddenly inducing panic. Downing�s free-kick near the corner flag eight minutes from time saw Alves and then David Wheater nod against the bar in the confusion.

Chelsea could marvel at the escapes. By the time the substitute Adam Johnson�s cross drifted from Juliano Belletti�s chest on to hand in the penalty area, there seemed little chance of the visitors being awarded the penalty they warranted.

Grant�s luck was in. "Afonso looked sharper than he has done previously for us and I can only compare that shout with the one that was given against us at Aston Villa, when Luke Young wasn�t even looking at the ball, added Southgate. It rolled down his arm."

If the flurry of opportunities gleaned in the last quarter suggested Boro might have deserved their point, then Chelsea could justifiably point to their dominance in the opening hour. There were occasional grumblings of frustration at Chelsea�s inability to secure victory in a more swashbuckling manner, Shaun Wright-Phillips blazing horribly high and wide on two occasions when he might have added a second.

Grant, however, could still depart relatively content in victory. His predecessor, Jose Mourinho, had won plenty of games as scrappy as this and was praised for the success he brought to the club. �I cannot say that was our best game, conceded the Israeli. "But at this stage of the season it�s all about winning."

The Results March 30:

March 29: Birmingham 3 (Zarate 40 & 54, McSheffrey pen-77) bt Manchester City 1 (Elano pen-59). Half-time: 1-0; Bolton 2 (Taylor 14 & 43) lost to Arsenal 3 (Gallas 62, Van Persie pen-68, Samuel o.g. 90). Half-time: 2-0; Derby 2 (Villa 10 & 80) drew with Fulham 2 (Kamara 24, Leacock o.g. 78). Half-time: 1-1; Manchester United 4 (Ronaldo 17, Tevez 33, Rooney 53 & 70) bt Aston Villa 0. Half-time: 2-0; Portsmouth 2 (Defoe 32 & 90) bt Wigan 0. Half-time: 1-0; Reading 0 drew with Blackburn 0; Sunderland 2 (Jones 29, Reid 90) bt West Ham 1 (Ljungberg 18). Half-time: 1-1.