LONDON (AP) — Demba Ba gave under-fire Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez some much-needed respite by scoring the winner in a 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, provisionally moving the team into third place in the English Premier League.
A toxic atmosphere had been expected at Stamford Bridge after Benitez's outburst on Wednesday, when he criticized the club's board and supporters for not giving him their full backing since his appointment as interim manager.
However, the backlash never materialized and Ba's 28th-minute goal, from David Luiz's nod-down, helped remove any tension that may have surfaced. Chelsea was dominant save for a nervy final 10 minutes, and secured a third straight home win in the league to climb above Tottenham, which plays Arsenal on Sunday.
There was a muted response when Benitez emerged from the tunnel and he received only isolated abuse during the game. He has had far worse in his troubled 101-day tenure and maybe his plea for unity got through to some fans, although there was a smattering of banners around the ground — including one that read 'Divided We Fall (hash)Rafaout.'
"I was really pleased with the performance on the pitch and the atmosphere was really good," Benitez said. "I was really pleased with the fans behind the team," he added. "The players played with more confidence and it was clear it was very positive."
With Chelsea playing some delightful football in the first half, there was no real need for supporters to vent their anger at Benitez after that. Oscar and Juan Mata had already been denied by West Brom goalkeeper Ben Foster by the time Ba opened the scoring with a well-worked corner routine that saw the ball arrive at the feet of Oscar. His cross was met at the far post by fellow Brazilian Luiz, whose header back across goal was met by a low finish from Ba. It was his 15th league goal.
West Brom, which was without top scorer Romelu Lukaku because he was ineligible to play against his parent club, was posing Chelsea no problems and the hosts maintained their dominance in the second half, although the second goal wouldn't come.
Ba missed a great chance to score a second goal when his goalbound shot from close range was blocked while winger Eden Hazard was denied a penalty after appearing to be bundled over by Jonas Olsson. Oscar's volley from Ba's nod-down was well saved by Foster in the 78th.
The longer the game went on, the more tense the crowd became and substitute Peter Odemwingie drew a great save out of Petr Cech with a long-range free kick. From the resulting corner, the Czech Republic goalkeeper needed to show more reflexes to bat away a header toward his own goal by Cesar Azpilicueta.
There is recent precedent for a change of Chelsea manager following losses to West Brom, with the Baggies being the final Premier League opponent for both Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo. Many wondered if this would be Benitez's last stand, but the win should ensure he stays on for the time being.