Offside? Who cares. That was the look on Carlo Ancelotti's face after Chelsea stopped a run of six winless games with a very streaky victory. Owen Coyle and his Bolton players cared quite a lot, judging from their furious reaction to Florent Malouda's 61st-minute winner.
World Cup final linesman Darren Cann might have raised his flag to halt the attack which led to the winner because Didier Drogba looked offside as he burst clear and crossed for Malouda. Instead, he kept it down by his side.
Paul Robinson, booked as he disputed the goal, was still ranting about the decision after the final whistle and Gary Cahill was busy in the referee's ear as the teams came off the pitch. On such tense occasions the tiniest fractions can prove significant and, when things are starting to look desperate, you need an element of fortune.
On a high: Florent Malouda skips over Bolton keeper goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen after scoring the only goal of the game at Stamford Bridge
As the visitors fumed, relief washed around Stamford Bridge. Chelsea had won in the Barclays Premier League for the first time since November 10. They were back in the Champions League places, four points behind leaders Manchester United, and Arsenal had been held at Wigan.
There were also signs in the final half-hour that Ancelotti's team were starting to find their stride again and they finished the game with a flurry which could have brought more goals. Nevertheless, he reacted with caution.
'We have to wait for the next game,' said Chelsea's Italian manager. 'This victory was a very important step but I am not sure everything will now be OK. We have to improve. We have to play better. We needed the win. The most important thing was to change the atmosphere, to change the trend, get back to winning. The League is open again.
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'I try to give confidence to the players. They are fantastic players. They have done fantastically here. This was the last game of this year. We have to have very good memories of this year. We did a fantastic job and it is good to finish this year with a victory.'
Despite the encouraging signs, Ancelotti can reflect on a first-half struggle against Bolton, when nerves plagued his players and the performance was littered with errors. They were jeered off at half-time when they were lucky to be level. John Terry had made two brave interventions in his own penalty area to thwart the visitors and Jussi Jaaskelainen had barely had a save to make.
One moment from Didier Drogba summed it all up when he took aim with a free-kick on the left, intending to curl it at goal, but fired it out of touch on the opposite flank.
Added pressure comes from a yellow card for Branislav Ivanovic, his fifth of the season, which means he will be suspended against Aston Villa on Sunday. Ancelotti will have to choose between teenager Jeffrey Bruma and full-back Paulo Ferreira to fill the void.
He is right to fear his problems may not end with 2010 and it is hard to believe it is only seven months since the Blues won the title by thrashing Wigan 8-0 at Stamford Bridge. But Ancelotti will be heartened by the consistent form of Terry since his return from injury and signs last night that Frank Lampard and Michael Essien were finding some rhythm again.
It was Lampard, on his first appearance at Stamford Bridge since August, who brought Chelsea to life with his wonderful vision and precision pass to release Drogba early in the second half. It looked a certain goal as the Ivory Coast striker side-footed the chance first time past Jaaskelainen but the ball thudded into the base of the post and Zat Knight hoisted it clear.
Making a point: Ashley Cole remonstrates with referee Mike Jones as Blues skipper John Terry looks on
Ancelotti looked to the sky but the near-miss injected his team with greater urgency, a quicker tempo and more control. Then his luck turned when Drogba darted on to Essien's pass and Malouda converted his low cross at the back post. Malouda raced down the touchline in frenzied celebration as Bolton went berserk.
'Ultimately, we've been done with a huge decision that I believe was offside,' said Coyle. 'My players were frustrated by the decision. I had to go down to the touchline to get them away because the decision had been given. We had to concentrate.'
Nowhere to run: Ramires attempts to weave his way through Paul Robinson and Kevin Davies
The Bolton manager had left Stamford Bridge after a 1-0 defeat in April in similar mood, branding Drogba 'a world-class volleyball player' after two strong penalty appeals had been turned down. His frame of mind did not improve when Stuart Holden crashed a shot into Terry's arm and referee Mike Jones played on. Then Holden was denied by a fingertip save by Petr Cech in the final minutes.
'I thought the shot was going in,' said Coyle. 'All I would say is that sometimes they are given and sometimes they are not. Did John Terry intentionally try to handle the ball? I'm not so sure but what I do know is that if that had happened at the other end, it might very well have been a penalty.'
Falling down: Jose Bosingwa takes a tumble after colliding with Bolton's Matthew Taylor
Coyle had criticised Cann after disputing a decision in a 1-1 draw against Wigan in October. 'I know who he is because I had him earlier in the season and their goal was clearly offside,' said the Bolton boss.
'He's a fantastic official. And I don't envy them their jobs but the reason they are in charge of World Cup finals and everything else is because they are believed to be real quality.
'But I just look at the progress we have made. If somebody had said to me that we'd be coming to Chelsea with a chance to leapfrog them, they'd have probably taken me away in a straitjacket. There's a lot to be pleased about.'
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