In retrospect Aston Villa's chances of making their first FA Cup final for a decade may have died when Jose Mourinho burgled Stamford Bridge. Had Chelsea been in Moscow this week, as Internazionale were, Villa might have found it easier to loose the holders' grip on the old pot.
Or maybe they disappeared when Howard Webb judged John Obi Mikel's clumsy 17th-minute tackle on Gabriel Agbonlahor to be legitimate; or when he spared both John Terry and Deco red cards in the 74th minute, when Villa were only one goal adrift.
Either way, the reality is that though Aston Villa are a top-seven club they need, like Everton in last season's final, the breaks to go their way if they are to beat a behemoth like Chelsea. Last year, Everton were undone by injuries before they started. Villa arrived fit, but without fate on their side.
Randy Lerner has spent between £100-140m in his four years as Villa owner (estimates vary, as they usually do in the opaque world of football finance) with a net loss of around £65m in the transfer market. It is enough to keep Villa among the chasing pack, but not to penetrate the elite. The extra resources available to clubs competing in the Champions League have destroyed the English game's competitive balance. Of the 33 trophies won by English clubs in the last decade the big four have won 29. In the 14 seasons since 1994-95, when Blackburn Rovers and Everton won the two major prizes, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have shared all 14 league titles, and that trio, plus Liverpool, have won 13 of the 14 FA Cups. The exception is Portsmouth, FA Cup winners two years ago, but since that bankrupted them it is hardly an example to emulate.
Chelsea are six wins from clinching the double this season, their first but the sixth in the Premier League era, one more than achieved in the 104 years before the breakaway. Carlo Ancelotti cautioned that this would "not be easy", and it is possible that Chelsea will lose a match between now and the May 15 final – the big four have been more vulnerable to one-off defeats this season. However, no-one would bet on a team from outside the big four finishing above Chelsea (or Manchester United) any season soon without the kind of petrodollar investment being undertaken at Manchester City.
Such dominance brings its own pressures. Rafael Benitez may win the Europa League this season but that will not silence his many critics. Arsène Wenger, with two doubles to his name, is under growing pressure due to a lack of silverware. Only a fortnight ago, Ancelotti was facing a crisis and even now he is smart enough to admit, "It could be a fantastic season, but if we win nothing again it will be difficult."
After events at Wembley and Ewood Park this weekend that seems unlikely even if Saturday's result was in doubt for an hour. Villa, understandably after the 7-1 thrashing at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, began with a degree of inhibition but the penalty incident fuelled them with a sense of injustice and the belief they could win. Clear chances, however, were elusive with Chelsea's defence in commanding form. With a poor pitch making passing difficult, it became a game that would be decided by mistakes, and Webb was not the only culprit. Soon after the hour, Richard Dunne misdirected a clearing header to Terry, whose sprayed shot found the similarly unmarked Didier Drogba lurking by the far post. The Ivorian scored for the fifth competitive Wembley fixture in succession. Had Webb dismissed Terry for his appalling challenge on James Milner, which provoked a deep frown from the watching Fabio Capello, or Deco, who should have been given a second yellow card in the same incident, Villa may have got back into the game. Instead Chelsea picked them off with Florent Malouda and Frank Lampard adding late goals.
O'Neill was furious afterwards, and can expect the FA to be in touch after accusing Webb of "bottling" the penalty because it would have meant dismissing Mikel. His anger was easy to understand, when facing Goliath David can do without the referee blocking his slingshot.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing; Agbonlahor, Carew (Heskey, 81). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), L Young, Sidwell, Delfouneso, Delph, Beye.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Paulo Ferreira, Terry, Alex, Zhirkov; Deco (Ballack, 77), Mikel, Lampard; J Cole (Kalou, 64), Drogba (Anelka, 80), Malouda. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Ivanovic, Sturridge, Belletti.
Referee: H Webb (S Yorks).
Booked: Chelsea Deco, Terry, Mikel.
Man of the match: Alex.
Attendance: 85,897.Reuse content