Chelsea's Demba Ba celebrates scoring a goal during their EPL match against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. (AP Photo)
London: 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 Premier League.
A toxic atmosphere had been expected at Stamford Bridge after Benitez's outburst on Wednesday, when he criticised the club's board and supporters for not giving him their full backing since his appointment as interim manager.
However, the backlash never materialised and Ba's 28th-minute goal, from David Luiz's nod-down, helped remove any tension that may have surfaced.
Chelsea were dominant throughout and secured a third straight home win in the league to climb above Tottenham, which play 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.'
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 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 of the season.
West Brom, which were without top scorer Romelu Lukaku because he was ineligible to play against his parent club, were 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.
But, will it be enough to save Benitez?