Depleted Chelsea see Premier League title hopes hit by draw at stubborn Wolves

The game Chelsea did not want ended in a scoreline they did not like. A club who had called for a postponement must wish the Premier League did not prove obdurate opponents even before Wolves then did likewise. For the fourth time in six league matches, Chelsea dropped points. Their fans chorused about being champions of Europe, but it is a run of results that renders it less likely they will become champions of England.

As Thomas Tuchel’s depleted group mustered a first clean sheet in seven attempts, the issues instead came at the other end. Chelsea were toothless and goalless. They can attribute it in part to the absence of many of their premier attackers, in Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Callum Hudson-Odoi, but profligacy was not the problem. They created too few chances to miss many.

Wolves had only lost 1-0 to Liverpool and Manchester City. This time they claimed a point against title contenders. They illustrated why they, along with the trio at the top, have the best defensive record. They can lament the fact that only Norwich have scored fewer.

Wolves were the more coherent side, a well-coached team sadly lacking a cutting edge. They had celebrated what they thought was just their third goal in eight games. Daniel Podence met Marcal’s low cross with a precise shot at the far post. But it was chalked off as Raul Jimenez, in the middle and clearly offside, had attempted to finish it himself. The Wolves supporters blamed VAR for a correct decision by the assistant referee. Thereafter, an unmarked Leander Dendoncker headed straight at Edouard Mendy when he met the elusive Podence’s cross.

Yet Chelsea posed still less of a threat. Some 78 minutes had elapsed before they mustered a shot on target. Then Christian Pulisic, who was deputising as a centre-forward, raced on to Marcos Alonso’s pass and drew a fine save from Jose Sa. Alonso had already struck the post, but when way offside, and that felt the sum of Chelsea’s attacking efforts.

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They had mitigating circumstances, but a club of their resources should still have been better. Tuchel had pronounced himself “disappointed and angry” when Chelsea’s requests for a postponement were denied. He cited seven positive tests for Covid and named only four outfield substitutes, though the sight of a quadruple Champions League winner, in Mateo Kovacic, on the bench was a reminder that even a weakened side still possess plenty of quality.

Calling it a makeshift team felt an exaggeration, though a midfield minus the injured Jorginho had an unusual look with Trevoh Chalobah more advanced than usual, Hakim Ziyech dropping deeper than is normally the case and N’Golo Kante returning.

Experiments did not work: Tuchel changed shape to 4-2-3-1 midway through the first half, making Reece James a right winger. He introduced Saul Niguez at the interval, then Kovacic after a further 20 minutes. The Spaniard brought an improvement, looking what he is – a more natural midfielder at this level than Chalobah – but he was not a transformative presence. Chelsea could enjoy Kante’s typically energetic comeback and a classy display from Thiago Silva, but very little else. Tuchel’s exaggerated gestures of annoyance summed up his feelings as two more points slipped away from them. Suddenly, from being league leaders, Chelsea are six adrift of City.

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