For the second time in a fortnight Chelsea defeated Aston Villa by a margin that hardly reflected the balance of play. Two weeks ago it was a flurry of late goals that brought about Villa's biggest ever Premier League defeat by 7-1. This time there were two in the last few minutes by Florent Malouda and Frank Lampard to distort the scoreline after Didier Drogba's 32nd goal of the season had put the holders in front with three-quarters of the game played.
Before that Villa, 20 points behind in the League table, showed no sign of inferiority or psychological damage and were the better side early on, when they were harshly denied a penalty. But overall they did not create enough scoring chances and were unable to gainsay John Terry's suggestion that they tend to fade late on.
Martin O'Neill must now attempt to ensure that the same does not apply to their season as a whole again – they play Everton on Wednesday – while Chelsea, through to their third final in four years, retain hopes of a first League and Cup double.
Whether or not they return to Wembley on 15 May as champions, they will have to hope against hope that the pitch has improved. Despite having been relaid for the 10th time, it was as poor as ever yesterday, which undoubtedly contributed to the disappointing nature of the football without entirely excusing it.
Carlo Ancelotti, who stands to emulate Arsène Wenger and Kenny Dalglish by doing the Double in his first full season, was gracious enough to admit: "In the first half we played without intensity and were lucky to be nil-nil. But the second half was totally different."
O'Neill was naturally in greater agreement with the former sentiment than the latter, once he got round to discussing the game as a whole rather than his fury at Howard Webb's penalty decision and Terry's tackle on James Milner. "I was very, very proud of the team," he said. "We suffered a heavy defeat by the same side and came here determined to win. Up until the first goal there was nothing in it. I told them at half-time they'd been absolutely brilliant."
There was an element of hyperbole to that assessment, but it was certainly the case that his team had more than matched the favourites. Entitled to regard the result a fortnight ago as something of a freak, O'Neill fielded nine of the same players, bringing back Stewart Downing for the more conservative Steve Sidwell to work the flanks with Ashley Young on the big Wembley pitch.
It risked offering Chelsea's tight midfield trio the opportunity to run the show – all the more so as Joe Cole and Malouda were more inclined to drift in off their touchline – but neither Lampard, scorer of four goals in the recent romp, nor Deco was able to take a grip during a dull first half.
Villa were convinced with some justification that Webb should have awarded a penalty 15 minutes in when Gabriel Agbonlahor, trying to turn past John Obi Mikel, went down. There was contact between them and Agbonlahor beat the turf in frustration as England's World Cup referee waved play on, O'Neill performing a furious dance in the technical area.
Their team had been closest to getting a goal up to that point as well, Milner taking a square pass from his central midfield partner, Stiliyan Petrov, and driving it a fraction wide of Petr Cech's post.
Early in the second half John Carew's deft back-header from a corner without leaving the ground passed close to the far post, but apart from one other shot by Young, Cech was never threatened again. Chelsea, in contrast, were slowly building up a head of steam.
As Malouda cut the ball back for Drogba shortly before the interval, the opening goal seemed certain, but Stephen Warnock, one of nine England contenders being scrutinised from the stands by Fabio Capello, threw himself into a superb block.
Ancelotti blinked first in the technical areas, sending on Salomon Kalou for Cole, and within two minutes his team were in front. Not that the two events were connected. It was Mikel who brought the ball forward to send Drogba away for a bold incursion into Villa's penalty area, easily slipping James Collins' rash challenge only to be foiled by Richard Dunne's block for a corner.
From saviour, Dunne immediately became villain, sending a weak header from the corner straight to Terry, whose miscued left-footed shot was turned into the net by Drogba. Big Fella Thanks, as the Blues' racing fans might have put it.
Michael Ballack replaced Deco, who could easily have received a second yellow card for fouling Petrov again, in the same move as the referee's mind was on taking Terry's name for a dreadful tackle on Milner. If Capello winced at that, he had another player to observe as Emile Heskey came on for the limping Carew – to no great effect.
A more reliable Englishman, Lampard, then began the counter-attack that brought the second goal, before scoring the third. First he spread the play to Ballack down the right for a fine cross met by a confident finisher in Malouda, then took a pass from substitute Nicolas Anelka to rub it in for Villa. A deserved win, by a flattering margin.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Malouda
Match rating: 6/10
MAN FOR MAN MARKING
BRAD FRIEDEL 6/10
There was not much Friedel could do about Chelsea's three goals, and other than that he had very little to do as Villa's defence kept the top flight's top-scoring team at arm's length. The American made a comfortable save from Cole's volley after 39 minutes.
CARLOS CUELLAR 7/10
The Spaniard was simply excellent at right-back, where he faced the in-form Malouda. He gave his opponent little space and produced a perfect tackle on the Frenchman in the 20th minute to deny Chelsea. He also pushed forward and supported the Villa attack.
JAMES COLLINS 7/10
The defender did little wrong and along with Dunne he kept Drogba out of the game except for the decisive moment when the Ivorian scored. Collins was a threat every time he came forward for free-kicks and corners. A disconsolate figure at the final whistle.
RICHARD DUNNE 7/10
The Irish defender passed a late fitness test on an Achilles injury to take his place in the team, with the job of keeping Drogba quiet, a job he performed with tenacity and wonderful concentration. Dunne marred his otherwise fine game with a poor header that led to Drogba's goal.
STEPHEN WARNOCK 6/10
He never stopped working down the Villa left. Warnock threw himself bravely at the ball to block Drogba's shot with his knee after 36 minutes. After all that, and in front of Fabio Capello, he almost undid it all with a terrible header moments later that allowed Cole to fire in a volley.
STUART DOWNING 6/10
The England hopeful spent most of the game on the right flank, but seemed far happier in those moments he swapped with Young and played on the left. A cross from Downing from the left almost led to a goal, but for Terry's saving header.
STILIYAN PETROV 6/10
The captain was tidy in the Villa midfield rather than spectacular. He led the team by example, doing the donkey work in front of the back four to ensure Lampard could not repeat his four-goal performance of two weeks ago.
JAMES MILNER 8/10
Comfortably won his personal duel with Cole to impress the watching England manager. Milner changed his boots after 12 minutes after he found it impossible to keep his feet on Wembley's relaid turf. He was a constant menace in the centre of midfield and was just wide with a low effort from 30 yards.
ASHLEY YOUNG 7/10
The winger began well and troubled both the Chelsea fullbacks but faded in the second half. Twice his crosses caused panic in the Chelsea defence but the Premier League leaders managed to recover. At times his delivery fails to live up to what has come before it.
JOHN CAREW 6/10
The Norwegian target-man won his share of balls in the air but could not make his presence felt in front of goal. His only chance came just after the interval, but his close-range header flew past the far post, and with it went Villa's FA Cup hopes.
GABRIEL AGBONLAHOR 8/10
The brightest attacker for Villa but, like his team-mates, he began to fade in the second half after an encouraging opening. Agbonlahor tested both John Terry and Alex early on in the game with a determined run, and should have had a penalty after he was upended by Mikel. Great tracking back and pressing.
Emile Heskey for Carew (82 minutes) Made no impression on the Chelsea defence, who by this time were on their way to another victory.
PETR CECH 7/10
Misread the flight of Downing's cross in the 32nd minute and totally missed his punch. Cech also looked uncomfortable with Young's cross on the hour, punching it past his near post for a corner. Had very little to do in the second half as Villa's legs went – again.
PAULO FERREIRA 6/10
This was probably the Portuguese veteran's last game of the season now Branislav Ivanovic is fit again, and he did little to convince Ancelotti to keep him in the side. He did hit a wonderful volleyed pass to Lampard early in the second half.
The big, lumbering Brazilian looked vulnerable when Villa kept the ball on the grass, but was far more comfortable when he was tested in the air, even against the towering Carew. Never had the chance to unleash one of his trademark free-kicks.
JOHN TERRY 7/10
Not his finest hour at Wembley, although he did create Drogba's goal, albeit with a shot that was going wide. Terry pulled off a brilliant glancing header just enough to deny Carew in the 32nd minute. Booked in the 75th minute for a horrible foul on Milner.
YURI ZHIRKOV 6/10
The Russian got up and down the left flank well in support of Malouda, but he was too casual in possession. The £18m defender did show what he is capable of with one brilliant pass to Drogba. Did enough to keep Villa's wingers in check, just about.
JOHN OBI MIKEL 6/10
What Chelsea wouldn't give for Claude Makelele right now. Mikel is too ponderous and unreliable. The Nigerian was in luck that referee Howard Webb was the only man in Wembley not to think his clumsy challenge on Agbonlahor in the 16th minute was not a penalty.
The Portuguese has become a regular in the Chelsea midfield again but this was his worst game in recent weeks. Had a sight of goal in the 50th minute but lashed his shot from a corner well wide of the Villa goal. He is a terrible tackler, and was booked for a ill-timed hack at Petrov's legs.
FRANK LAMPARD 7/10
Chelsea's inspiration at the heart of the midfield, Lampard was always available for the ball and seldom misplaced a pass. His patient approach was key to Chelsea finally grinding down the Villa resistance. Earned his reward with a stoppage-time goal.
JOE COLE 6/10
Another inconsistent performance. The England midfielder occupied his customary role on the right of attack but looks happier when is on the left and can cut in and shoot with his favoured right foot. He did just that in the 11th minute but could only find the side-netting.
DIDIER DROGBA 7/10
Decided the match with his poacher's goal in the 67th minute when he instinctively turned in Terry's shot after a corner. However it was not a vintage performance from the Ivorian, who found himself unable to get much change out of Dunne and Collins.
FLORENT MALOUDA 7/10
Malouda struggled with the relaid pitch more than most. Kept his feet to finish wonderfully from Ballack's cross in the 88th minute.
Salomon Kalou for Cole (65 minutes) Injected energy to the Chelsea attack, and went close with an attempted curler from 25 yards that was deflected wide. Michael Ballack for Deco (76) Wonderful cross to the far post for Malouda to score Chelsea's second. Nicolas Anelka for Drogba (80) Unselfishly set up Lampard for Chelsea's third goal in stoppage time.
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