After two seasons of utter domination by Chelsea, are we going to see a real contest for the Premiership this time? Even Jose Mourinho conceded that possibility after Aston Villa left Stamford Bridge with a gritty point - something that only Charlton Athletic managed in the whole of the last campaign. His champions could be as low as third in the table by this evening, Manchester United and Portsmouth both having an opportunity to knock them off the top.
It was a thrilling game as the visitors grew in confidence following the setback of conceding a scrappy goal in the third minute. The speedy teenager, Gabriel Agbonlahor, equalised before half-time and Martin O'Neill's team stood strong at the back against an onslaught in the second half. With Olof Mellberg outstanding at centre-half and Thomas Sorensen equally difficult to find a way past after the goal, they broke with guile, supplied by Stilian Petrov and Steven Davis, and pace.
It was a more impressive effort than Mourinho was prepared to concede in his dismissive assertion that: "One team wanted to win, one wanted a point." He did admit that whereas most other teams are stronger this season than last, Chelsea are "maybe at this moment not". The reason for that is a short pre-season and a change of formation that has also had to incorporate three new players. One of them, Michael Ballack, was missing through suspension here, but the other new recruits, Ashley Cole and Andriy Shevchenko, are still finding their expensive feet.
It was unfortunate for Cole, who has not yet turned in a good game since his convoluted move from Arsenal, to be up against Agbonlahor, a 19-year-old who O'Neill confessed to knowing little about when he succeeded David O'Leary only a fortnight before the season began. Shevchenko, meanwhile, has not scored for seven games and was close only once yesterday. Mourinho's contention that his £30 million striker (or Roman Abramovich's) "played very well" must have been psychological encouragement rather than any desire for realistic assessment.
Keen to avoid any hangover from a return home from Bulgaria as dawn was breaking on Thursday (an hour not entirely unknown to professional footballers), the manager brought back Arjen Robben, Cole, Gérémi and Claude Makelele. There was nothing sleepy-eyed about their start to the game, scrappy as the goal was. Robben curled in a free-kick from the right that Sorensen, pressured by John Terry, did not collect. The ball fell for Drogba, who required three jabs before scrambling it from under his feet and across the line via Mellberg.
The visitors, who have not won in London since March 2004, understandably felt a little shell-shocked, and Frank Lampard might have taken advantage, driving only just wide from 25 yards. But slowly, Petrov began to drive Villa forward. After quarter of an hour Gavin McCann's shot was blocked and Petrov's even stronger one had to be pushed for a corner by Petr Cech.
That was nevertheless the sum of the threat to the home goal until, with the interval beckoning, Davis sent a free-kick beyond the back post, where Liam Ridgewell headed back to the unmarked Agbonlahor for a firm nod into the net. It was remarkably slack marking and would have occasioned a rebuke from Mourinho at half-time. His tone would have been even harsher had Milan Baros, who was on for the injured Luke Moore, put more beef into his shot from 15 yards a minute later as Ricardo Carvalho slipped.
In between, Robben had cleverly beaten two men down the left and cut the ball back for Lampard, whose effort was blocked by the goalkeeper, and Michael Essien might have scored from a corner, heading down just in front of Sorensen.
Still nothing would go Shevchenko's way. Frustrated after a foul by Gareth Barry, he petulantly pulled off both boots in annoyance and was therefore off the pitch, putting them back on, as Gérémi slid a fine low centre across that Drogba could not quite get a touch on. The goalkeeper then turned Robben's shot from an almost impossible angle over the bar and saved well from Essien after Shevchenko finally made a positive intervention with his angled pass.
In bringing Baros on, Villa had switched from their normal 4-3-3 to a more conventional 4-4-2, leaving Agbonlahor a little deeper to offer occasional respite with his breaks down the right. He once left Terry standing and soon afterwards Petrov teed up Baros for a shot that Terry blocked with his chest.
Mourinho's response was to send on Shaun Wright-Phillips and Salomon Kalou for Robben and Gérémi, both making a swift impact. Wright-Phillips thrashed a good shot against the bar and then a weak one across goal for Lampard to head wide, after Kalou had beaten his man and forced Sorensen to push the ball away to the little winger, who should have scored.
When Shevchenko found his range at last from 20 yards, Sorensen was equal to the shot. But Villa had justifiable grounds for complaint when first Baros and then Juan Pablo Angel appeared to be held back as they went for goal. In a breathless finish, Angel wasted a glorious chance by volleying into the side-netting, and there was still time for Kalou to miss badly,heading Lampard's corner wide.Reuse content