BLACKBURN Rovers succumbed to a late winner from Premier League champions Chelsea despite leading in front of their prospective new owners at Ewood Park this afternoon.
Rovers went ahead through Benjani but Nicolas Anelka levelled before half time and Branislav Ivanovic made it 2-1 with six minutes left.
Rovers’ potential new owners, Balaji and Venkatesh Rao of Indian poultry giants Venky’s, took their seats in the directors’ box for the game, which was preceded by a touching minute’s applause for club legend Ronnie Clayton, who died yesterday.
The result – which leaves Sam Allardyce’s men still only one place above the relegation zone – was particularly tough on Rovers, who played with guile and creativity and could have been 3-0 ahead by the time the Blues drew level.
Chelsea started confidently enough early on, zipping the ball around in the midfield and looking every bit a side who had scored 27 goals in their nine league games.
But after surviving a scary moment when Ivanovic got free on the right and his fine cross just eluded Didier Drogba, it was Blackburn who dominated the first half-hour.
And it was not down to the expected aerial bombardment – which Ivanovic was recalled to counter. Rovers, playing in front of their prospective new owners from Indian business group Venky’s simply outplayed and outpassed the leaders before the break.
Brett Emerton had the first sight of goal when he ran through but he did not have the pace to outstrip the visiting defence and was also unable to find Benjani.
Mame Diouf was then denied by an excellent sliding tackle by John Terry, and the same player saw his well-disguised lob just about kept out by the desperate figure of Petr Cech as the big keeper slipped while re-adjusting his feet.
But the chances kept coming and Benjani, making his first Premier League start for Rovers, went close after a powerful run.
El-Hadji Diouf provided the main spark on the left flank with a series of teasing crosses and it was one such cross that led to the opening goal.
The impressive El-Hadji Diouf – scorer of Blackburn’s equaliser in the same fixture last season – curled in an an inviting inswinging centre from the left and Benjani got ahead of Terry to send an excellent header across Cech and into the corner.
It was the first league goal Carlo Ancelotti’s side had conceded in the first half this season and was almost followed by the second moments later.
El-Hadji Diouf was again the provider as Cech had to stretch every part of his enormous frame to prevent Mame Diouf nodding the ball home.
Chelsea finally started to settle and Michael Essien went close with an improvised, toe-poked effort from edge of the box.
And Anelka, who has scored 11 goals in 15 games against Rovers, drew the Londoners level when Cech’s pin-point punt found Malouda.
His delicious cross-field pass was nodded invitingly back into the path of Anelka, who guided the ball past Paul Robinson first time.
That was the crucial moment in the match and gave Chelsea the platform for a much-improved second half.
Both sides went all out for a winner after the interval but neither team were able to exert any long spells of dominance.
Ashley Cole screwed a shot wide after good work by Malouda and Rovers keeper Robinson made a smart stop from Zhirkov’s well-struck first-time effort.
Mame Diouf was a whisker away from restoring Blackburn’s lead but could not turn home substitute Jason Roberts’s clever flick from Morten-Gamst Pedersen’s dangerous free-kick.
Roberts, whose strength and ability to hold the ball up came to the fore as the second half wore on, should have put Rovers ahead but shot narrowly wide after muscling his way into the box.
At the other end, Blues substitute Daniel Sturridge smashed a vicious, curling effort just wide after a jinking run.
But Ivanovic – who was about to replaced by Paulo Ferreira – leapt to head home the winner from Zhirkov’s wonderful floated cross to secure Chelsea’s first away victory in the league in three matches.
It was particularly cruel on Rovers, whose performance was a fitting tribute to former player Ronnie Clayton who died on Friday and whose contribution was recognised by a minute’s applause before kick-off.