Coventry City 2-2 Chelsea

Dean Gripton reports

Twice Chelsea came back from the blow of going behind to score within a minute to gain a point at Highfield Road, but their defensive errors have now surely cost them any hope for a spring challenge for even a Champions League place.

Tore Andre Flo was twice the recipient of a Gianfranco Zola pass to equalise, and Gordon Strachan would no doubt have had words to say about his defence after letting Chelsea back into the game not once, but twice.

With eight minutes to go Robbie Keane was able to head home from five yards after Paul Telfer's brilliant right-wing cross was headed back by first goalscorer Cedric Roussel, but Flo then chipped home to deny Coventry yet another London scalp.

Coventry had won the previous four games here against Chelsea, and it should have been five. Opening Day fixtures the last two seasons, this time it was the opening fixture of the New Year for the two clubs.

And an intruiging encounter it was, lifted by two goals early in the second half after a somewhat disappointing first 45 minutes.

Nine minutes after the interval Coventry took the lead. A Mustapha Hadji shot would have tested Ed De Goey, but Roussel, preferred to Noel Whelan, steadied himself after getting in the way of the effort, before steering home left-footed past the stranded Dutchman.

But before the home crowd could clear their throats for a chorus of their own Eton Boat Song, Chelsea had equalised.

Gianfranco Zola, who had started the game, wonderfully slalomed his way into the Coventry area, before pulling back unselfishly to a now-unmarked Tore Andre Flo. All Coventry's poise finally lost, the Norwegian fired home for the third successive game for his 12th of the season.

Chelsea faced this before Saturday's trip to Bradford - on a day when they are the only Premiership sides in action because of the FA Cup. So this represented an opportunity - earned by the two Christmas wins against Southampton and Sheffield Wednesday - to unbelievably claw themselves back into the race for at least a Champions' League place next season. They could not take it.

That is because Coventry are no mugs, having beaten Arsenal here on Boxing Day. And they have the fourth best defensive record in the Premiership, never a stat that you could regularly use about the Sky Blues at the turn of any year.

Robbie Keane has averaged a goal every two games since Gordon Strachan took his gamble on the Wolves youngster, and despite never having too many chances to add to his tally of eight, he took the one that came his way. And with Roussel, he proved more than nuisance to Chelsea's new look defence.

But the lack of chances available would have been a good lesson to him about everyday life in this division, especially as he was to grab a poacher's effort with those eight minutes remaining instead of his customary pearl.

So Marcel Desailly, back early after a shoulder injury, was unsure how to defend Paul Williams' 8th minute free-kick and conceded a corner - an early sign of how Roussel's aerial presence would create uncertainty.

Keane did show us a beautiful pull-back in midfield in the 28th minute, appreciated by one of the Italian connection, Roberto Di Matteo, who complimented the Irishman on his skill by flying in with both feet. His right caught the Coventry striker on the left ankle, the left catching him around the upper thigh.

Chelsea had got the ball into some good wide positions but the crossing was of very poor standard in the first half, so their concentrated pressure did not find itself seriously threatening the Coventry goal, with Flo no doubt frustrated with the quality of his service.

The service was certainly there for him in the 38th minute, when an unnecessary foul by Telfer meant a free-kick to be taken by Zola in the left-wing corner. Whipped in, Flo reached it six yards out by getting in front of markers and goalkeeper Magnus Hedman, but could not keep the effort down. At this stage there were no efforts on target by either side, and the only record of such in the first-half was a half-hit Gustavo Poyet 'shot' that was a mere backpass for Coventry's Swedish goalkeeper.

In the left-back position, not his natural one, a Zola error led to a low cross in by Keane, Thome great interception to concede only a corner as Cedric Roussel lurked six yards out. The Belgian had caused some problems in the air in the first half, and his contribution was to become scoresheet worthy.

Hadji also showed the skill that Keane has, and that have made Coventry one of the easier Premiership sides on the eye, but Coventry were unable to seriously pressurise the new look Chelsea defence.

'The Wall', Emerson Thome, and 'The Rock', Desailly, were together for the first time given the absence of Frank Leboeuf, but Emerson spoiled his copybook when a pinball scene in thre Coventry box reached the Brazilian two minutes before the break, but he screwed an unchallenged effort wide. Coventry would have been relieved as they finished the period on the back foot.

Chelsea have been accused plentifully of not showing the backbone for battle in the Premiership, especially in this sort of away game. But skipper Dennis Wise was clearly relishing his confrontation in the midfield hotbed with opposite number Gary McAllister - two of the Premiership's worthiest elder statesmen.

After 67 minutes came a terrible miss for Chelsea, with their season reaching a key period. A Wise cross saw Poyet and Hedman both miss the ball at the near post and the chance fell for Di Matteo. 'Goal', thought the Chelsea fans, but the midfielder, was too nonchalant and side-footed against Paul Telfer, who had got back somewhat ambitiously, we all thought.

Youssef Chippo fired a great drive across the face of goal in injury-time, so Coventry were denied another win. For them there will be no relegation struggle, for Chelsea no later championship surge.

Coventry: Hedman, Telfer, Williams, Breen, Froggatt, Chippo, McAllister, Palmer, Hadji, Roussel (Whelan 87), Keane.
Subs Not Used: Ogrizovic, Normann, Eustace, Gustafsson.
Booked: Hadji.
Goals: Roussel 54, Keane 81.

Chelsea: De Goey, Ferrer, Desailly, Thome, Babayaro, Poyet (Petrescu 74), Deschamps (Morris 78), Wise, Di Matteo (Sutton 85), Flo, Zola.
Subs Not Used: Cudicini, Lambourde.
Booked: Di Matteo.
Goals: Flo 55, 82.

Att: 20,164
Ref: P Durkin (Dorset).