Aston Villa 1 Chelsea 2: Branislav Ivanovic strike may be pivotal for Jose Mourinho in Premier League title hunt

Blues escaped Villa Park with all three points despite below-par performance

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If Chelsea lift the Premier League title in May, Saturday’s visit to Aston Villa will be remembered as one of the pivotal moments.

Villa Park was previously one of only two Premier League grounds – the other being St James’s Park – where Jose Mourinho had never won. And when Jores Okore headed the home side’s first goal in 11 hours of play to cancel out Eden Hazard’s early strike, it felt briefly as if that statistic would stay untouched.

Instead Chelsea, while not at their sparkling best, dug out a 2-1 victory which midfielder Nemanja Matic argued could be “one that is decisive in winning the title”.

With their lead over Manchester City now seven points, Matic noted: “We could look back at the end of the season and this could be one of the big days. Aston Villa are always very difficult to play in this stadium.”

Chelsea certainly missed the suspended Diego Costa – his absence highlighted by the sight of Didier Drogba, his replacement, flouncing around in old drama queen mode – and while there was a bright performance from Willian, starting ahead of second-half debutant Juan Cuadrado, this victory was a product more than anything of the competitive instincts and knowhow of the club’s old guard, personified by matchwinner Branislav Ivanovic.

 

“It is very important to have that experience in the team,” added Matic. “They have won it already and know in this kind of game what is going to happen.”

Mourinho was fulsome in his praise of Ivanovic, describing him as the kind of “competitive animal” needed by every title-winning side. “A team is an artist like Hazard, it is a defender like Branislav,” he said.

Ivanovic’s previous goal, the headed winner against Liverpool in the Capital One Cup semi-final, came as he played on with a blood-soaked boot. If that was a case of Terry Butcher-style courage, Saturday’s brilliant left-foot strike was one Hazard would have been happy with. “Every striker in the world would be proud to score that magnificent goal, so imagine a right-back whose best foot is not the left one,” said Mourinho.

Mourinho, who confirmed that Cesc Fabregas would be fit for Wednesday’s home match against Everton, also used his post-match briefings to continue his simmering feud with Paul Lambert, the home manager. There is a history of ill feeling between the pair and at one point in the first half Lambert responded to words from Mourinho’s assistant Rui Faria by jabbing angrily at the Chelsea bench. There was no handshake afterwards and instead Mourinho aimed one of his verbal darts at the Glaswegian, saying: “If they go down, it is not because of the quality of their players, for sure.”

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Lambert suggested Mourinho’s praise of his players – among whom Carles Gil certainly shone – was intended to increase the pressure on him, but that pressure is building anyway. His 100th league game in charge brought a fourth straight defeat ahead of Tuesday’s six-pointer at Hull City, although Okore, the man who ended the goal drought, found at least one shred of comfort. “It is really positive that we can now go out there and not have to talk about not scoring,” he said.

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