Vialli's side, who were indebted to a splendid two-goal flourish from Tore Andre Flo, thus moved to within three points of Manchester United's closest pursuers, Arsenal. They have two games in hand on the leaders and, crucially, expect to welcome back Gustavo Poyet in their next match, at Charlton. The toughest of their remaining fixtures is at home to Leeds. Otherwise, their run-in is largely comprised of mid-table teams or clubs from the lower reaches.
If anyone at Stamford Bridge really had given up on the championship, they forgot to let Flo in on the theory. Breaking his team's sequence of three domestic fixtures without a goal, he fired Chelsea in front moments before the hour. That they did not make sure of the points until the last four minutes, when Bjarne Goldbaek and Flo scored, was almost entirely due to the agility of Mark Bosnich, the one Villa player seemingly unaffected by a chronic lack of confidence.
Villa will be glad to see the back of Flo for another season. The gangling Norwegian was on the scoresheet when Chelsea punctured their early optimism with a 4-1 win in the Worthington Cup in October, and then scored the last-gasp goal which consigned them to their first Premiership away defeat in December. But, in truth, Villa will be glad to see the back of the season, period. Having led the pack going into the new year, John Gregory's team are now in danger of missing out on a Uefa Cup place.
Worryingly for the Villa manager, the most conspicuous demonstration of passion yesterday came from their physio. Jim Walker, who was on the pitch to treat Stan Collymore following a challenge which earned Marcel Desailly a yellow card, exchanged heated words with Dennis Wise after the Chelsea captain appeared to cast aspersions on the prostrate striker.
The incident could prove costly for Chelsea. Wise also ended up being cautioned, and now both he and Desailly are suspended for next month's visit to Wimbledon. None of which was of any consolation to Villa, who gave the ball away with alarming regularity.
The only surprise was that Chelsea took so long to translate their ascendancy into goals. They frequently had Bosnich's protectors in disarray and the Australian had to be at his best to keep Flo and Gianfranco Zola at bay before the break. The home side made only one chance during the same period, Dion Dublin's header from Alan Thompson's cross forcing Ed de Goey into a diving catch.
The breakthrough arrived after a deftly chipped through-pass by Albert Ferrer released Flo in the inside-right channel. Switching the ball on to his left foot, and throwing off Gareth Southgate in the process, he curled a low shot beyond Bosnich from the angle of the six-yard box.
Desailly almost gifted Villa an equaliser with uncharacteristically slack control in the 76th minute, only for Julian Joachim's lob over De Goey to pass wide. The miss stung Chelsea into renewed efforts which produced the additional goals their performance merited.
Goldbaek, arguably the snip of the season at pounds 300,000 from FC Copenhagen, collected his fourth goal for Chelsea with a fulminating finish after being played in by Flo. The provider became predator once more following a marvellous pass by Jody Morris, Flo rounding Bosnich before slotting in his 11th goal of the campaign.
Gregory admitted later that the longer Villa's decline went on, the harder it became to end it. "The transformation has been amazing," he sighed.
Goals: Flo (59) 0-1; Goldbaek (86) 0-2; Flo (90) 0-3.
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Scimeca, Southgate, Barry; Watson, Stone, Hendrie (Taylor, 83), Thompson, Wright; Dublin (Merson, 74), Collymore (Joachim, 74). Substitutes not used: Draper, Oakes (gk).
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Le Saux, Desailly, Leboeuf, Ferrer; Petrescu (Lambourde, 78), Morris, Wise, Goldbaek; Zola, Flo (Nicholls, 90). Substitutes not used: Duberry, Newton, Hitchcock (gk).
Referee: G Barber (Surrey). Bookings: Villa: Thompson. Chelsea: Ferrer, Desailly, Wise.
Man of the match: Flo.
Attendance: 39,217.Reuse content