Lampard ignites race for title

By FRANK DALLERES AT STAMFORD BRIDGE

Late penalty from Chelsea super-sub ends City’s unbeaten run and ­catapults Villas-Boas’ side back into the top four

CHELSEA 2 vs MANCHESTER CITY 1

CHELSEA manager Andre Villas-Boas declared his team’s faltering Premier League title challenge back on track after Frank Lampard climbed off the bench to puncture leaders Manchester City’s unbeaten record.

Lampard, left out again, staked his claim for a recall by slamming home the 83rd-minute penalty that completed the home side’s deserved comeback against a City side reduced to 10 men by the sending off of defender Gael Clichy.

It hoisted the Blues back up to third place, leapfrogging London rivals Tottenham and Arsenal, further justified Villas-Boas’s belief that he is here to stay and widened the tiny fissures beginning to appear in City’s hitherto excellent season.

Lampard will enjoy the glory, but credit must go to former City striker Daniel Sturridge, whose shot won the penalty and who also crossed for Raul Meireles to cancel out Mario Balotelli’s second-minute opener.

Victory in the battle of the top flight’s two richest clubs moved Chelsea within seven points of City, feeding their manager’s confidence that they can prevail in one of the most open title battles for some time.

“It’s a very gratifying win for us,” said Villas-Boas. “It changes a little bit our challenge for the Premier League. Seven points in this league at the moment, with seven teams competing for the title, is nothing. And a lot of games will continue to happen. Shortening it to seven points is good for us but we need to continue to perform.”

Villas-Boas, who also denied asking his players to celebrate with him after goals, was unrepentant at City controversially being denied a first-half penalty for a foul on David Silva that could have put them two goals ahead.

“I was made aware there might have been contact with David Silva, but it’s unlucky for him,” he added. “That is the nature of the game. At least our penalty is a blatant penalty so nobody can say anything about that one.”

City manager Roberto Mancini restored the quicksilver Balotelli to the starting line-up despite the Italian flouting a curfew by visiting an Indian restaurant -- and engaging in what has been described as a playful rolling pin swordfight -- late on Saturday night.

Within 98 seconds, Balotelli had proven he is even better value on the pitch than off it, and even more rapier-like with ball at feet than when wielding baking apparatus, by skipping nonchalantly round goalkeeper Petr Cech to open the scoring.

While Balotelli applied the final cut, it was Sergio Aguero who sliced Chelsea’s notorious high line to ribbons. Back to goal on the right wing, he darted inside, turning John Terry and, with a waft of the outside of his right boot, found Balotelli lurking behind Branislav Ivanovic. One-nil.

City looked assured, powerful, while Chelsea reeled and skidded in the teeming rain, and twice should have increased their lead. First, Aguero shot narrowly wide and then referee Mark Clattenburg turned down Silva’s strong penalty claim following an apparent trip by Jose Bosingwa.

Reprieved, Chelsea found their feet and Sturridge engineered the reply. The youngster teased Clichy, reached the bye-line and crossed to the penalty spot, where Meireles had escaped Yaya Toure to volley a 34th minute equaliser.

The balance had swung, as Sturridge demonstrated by firing a rising half-volley over straight after the re-start, and Vincent Kompany, the bedrock of City’s defence, flirted with a second yellow card before Clichy earned his, for a rash tackle on Ramires in the 58th minute.

Enter Lampard. Uncanny timing has long been his calling card, and he was on hand when Joleon Lescott was penalised for handling Sturridge’s shot. Having missed his last two spot kicks, he opted to blast down the middle, and Joe Hart leapt obligingly to his left.