Villa break drought but Chelsea prevailed
BIRMINGHAM, England — A trio of points following Chelsea’s victory away at Aston Villa to move seven points clear at the top of the Premier League.
1. Villa break drought but Chelsea prevail
“He scores when he wants,” sang Aston Villa fans in deep irony after Jores Okore had broken a goal famine that was just seconds away from reaching 11 hours. Chelsea, meanwhile, were paying for failing to build on a lead that came early and easily. The score was 1-1, and there was a rare outbreak of smiles on the Holte End.
Carles Gil, a bright spark since arriving in the Midlands last month and frequently excellent here, curved in a cross from the flank, and a nod from Okore powered the ball past Thibaut Courtois. At first there was a pause, but then disbelief became joy.
Villa’s problem was that one goal was never likely to be enough. Okore was guilty of failing to clear his lines when Cesar Azpilicueta overlapped down Villa’s right. The ball spilled to Branislav Ivanovic, and the league leaders, who have much to thank Steve Bruce’s Hull City for, are now seven points clear and cruising after that 66th-minute winner.
Chelsea had previously played as if believing that Eden Hazard’s goal had taken the points. Courtois, after his error last week gifted Manchester City an equaliser, had an unsettled afternoon, finding life difficult amid Villa’s robust approach to set pieces.
The league leaders had to deal without Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, the top goal scorer and creator supreme respectively. They lack firepower without them.
A feathered finish had Chelsea on course to stay “top of the league,” as this season’s terrace anthem has it. All share the manager’s belief that the team can lead the table from first to last even if cracks are beginning to appear in their squad. Didier Drogba, subbed off with nearly half an hour left, no longer looks an answer in attack. Loic Remy replaced him and within moments Chelsea had their winner through Ivanovic, who has a happy habit of scoring important goals.
The Serb struck a shot that Costa, or Drogba in his prime, would have been proud of. Juan Cuadrado was soon given a chance to show off the tricks that may soon be adding variety to Chelsea’s attack.
2. Jose buries a ghost
Jose Mourinho has serious history with Villa — he had made five visits and not won a single one of them before this victory. A 2-0 defeat at Villa Park in September 2007 hastened his exit from the club, while last season was almost as catastrophic. Willian and Ramires were sent off and their manager was banished to the stands after arriving on the pitch to remonstrate with referee Chris Foy. A 1-0 defeat cost Chelsea the chance to stay nine points clear of eventual champions Manchester City. It might just have cost them the title.
Having broken his self-imposed media ban to aim a series of jibes at officialdom and City’s financial fair play status, this was not an encounter that required him to play his A-game, even though he and Villa manager Paul Lambert had a frank exchange of views in the first half. Rui Faria, Mourinho’s fitness coach and frequent partner in crimes, joined in, too.
The pair hardly share a warm relationship after last season’s Villa win. Indeed, in September, Mourinho tried to shake the hand of Lambert and Roy Keane before the final whistle of a 3-0 Chelsea victory had sounded.
Chelsea’s manager stayed mostly in his dugout, leaving Lambert to cut a lone figure in the technical area. Only once Villa drew level did Mourinho venture forth, and seconds after switching Remy in for Drogba, his team had a lead they held. The title is now within his team’s grasp. Perhaps Jose’s “Happy One” persona might soon be making a return. He will have been delighted to break his Villa Park hoodoo.
3. Villa fans’ faith being tested
Villa’s previous goal scorer, Christian Benteke — who netted against Manchester United on Dec. 20 — was only brought on when a second equaliser was required.
Lambert decided to try to break his team’s duck without a recognisable target man, Gabby Agbonlahor being more of a flank forward. It worked, too. The captain’s main job appeared to be stopping the ball getting from Chelsea’s central defenders to Nemanja Matic to begin attacks. Villa pinged in a fair amount of crosses but with Benteke benched, there was no one to head them in until Okore, up for a set piece, scored his goal.
The sheer hopelessness of last week’s 5-0 defeat at Arsenal has many Villa fans at breaking point. Lambert’s popularity rating nears ground zero. After going behind so early, each failed pass or missed tackle was greeted with howls of disappointment. These natives are beyond restless. This is an unhappy ship; the captain is facing widespread mutiny.
After taking his jacket off to brave a bitterly cold afternoon in just a sweater and shirt, Lambert’s demeanour suggested that he is not yet for quitting, and his team’s efforts suggested he has not completely lost the dressing room. So too did the breakneck start that immediately followed half-time and resulted in Okore’s goal. Lambert’s time at the club has often seen the best performances come against bigger clubs, and this was another, but not nearly enough. Villa have problems beyond scoring.
The defence was, until last week, holding pretty firm. Hazard’s opener happened far too easily and Azpilicueta should not have been allowed to find Ivanovic for the second.
A malfunctioning team, then, and there must be great sympathy for those who pay good money to attend Villa Park. Crowds have been down this season but this was not too far off a full house. Perhaps an outbreak of Midlands masochism is the reason, but such loyalty is being tested severely.