There were times when maintaining Chelsea's unbeaten home league record during his first spell at Stamford Bridge was as easy for Jose Mourinho as walking his Yorkshire terrier around Holland Park. Tonight was a reminder that in the Premier League of 2013, life will be different.
Chelsea are top of the league with six points from their first two games in the space of four days, which is a position that Mourinho will not want to concede easily, especially come the game at Old Trafford on Monday. But they were made to work damn hard for it tonight by a fine Aston Villa performance that stretched Chelsea all the way and might even have merited more.
The winning goal was headed past Brad Guzan by Branislav Ivanovic on 73 minutes, a fine finish, albeit with a touch of offside about it. Yet minutes earlier, the Chelsea right-back had caught Christian Benteke, Villa’s goalscorer, with a flailing elbow. It was by no means a clear-cut red card but may have earned a dismissal from some referees.
Extensive petitioning by John Terry and Frank Lampard followed and referee Kevin Friend opted to show Ivanovic the yellow rather than the red. When the ball struck Terry’s raised arm in the penalty area in injury-time at the end of the game, Friend did not react and the Villa bench were incensed.
For Lambert there were no doubts. “We have been ‘done’ by two big decisions”, said the Villa manager. On Saturday it could be said that he benefited from the performance of Anthony Taylor in the win over Arsenal but this is the Premier League and life moves on quickly. Tonight Villa left London convinced that with a different referee they might still be unbeaten.
Upon such decisions are games decided and this was a real beauty; it shaped up to be a hard night for Villa at first but this young team held their own in impressive style. Three academy graduates in the starting XI; three more signed from Football League clubs. Paul Lambert’s team are maturing nicely.
As for Mourinho, after the blitz of Hull in the first half on Sunday, this was the dogfight that tested his team’s mettle. Afterwards he blamed himself for not making more changes from the Sunday's side – he made only two – but praised the resilience of his team. Certainly, in the difficult moments they dug out a result and they relied heavily upon Petr Cech when the pressure was intense.
“The team fought very hard and sometimes you have to win because you play fantastic football, “Mourinho said. “Sometimes when you don’t do that you have to play based on other things and tonight other things gave us the game.” Against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Monday, Mourinho’s side will have to be more polished, and they will also have to demonstrate the fight they showed against Villa.
At times in the first half, certainly in the opening stages, Villa struggled to contain a Chelsea side that looked determined to build on the solid work of their first half performance against Hull City on Sunday. In those opening stages of the game, Chelsea worked their opponents hard all over the pitch. It was relentless and Villa did well to stay in touch.
They could not prevent the breakthrough, an own goal by Antonio Luna on six minutes after Oscar’s pass into the left channel unzipped the Villa defence and let Eden Hazard in on goal. His shot was actually well-saved by Guzan but the goalkeeper succeeded only in pushing it against Luna, running towards his own goal, from where it was deflected into the net.
Weaker teams would have allowed themselves to be steam-rollered. With Juan Mata back in the team the three little maestros at Chelsea’s creative heart last season were re-united. And they passed the ball beautifully at times but the problem was Demba Ba, who took Fernando Torres’ place. Ba scarcely made an impression on Villa’s defence which had to be reshuffled when Ciaran Clark picked up a bad cut to his head and Jores Okore was sent on to replace him.
For the whole of that first half, Lambert’s young team worked the full press on Chelsea. It is hard going to shut down a team as sharp as this one but they made an excellent job of it. As for Chelsea, they tried to get Ba into the game with the long balls over the top hit by Terry or Gary Cahill. But Ba is no Didier Drogba and he could not make it stick.
As for Villa, they had two good chances and they took the second. The first fell to Andreas Weimann who did not get a clean connection on a header at the back post when Luna had got free down the left and crossed for him. It was the first time that Ivanovic had let anyone in behind him but when he did for the second time, Villa scored.
Gabby Agbonlahor, who worked hard all half without much chance to run with the ball, saw his chance to take on the Serb. A frustrating player at times, Agbonlahor only has three England caps but on his day he can take on the best of them. Having got behind Ivanovic he found Benteke with a fabulous cut-back. The Villa centre-forward needed one touch to take the ball onto his left and another to sweep it past Cech and in off the post.
In the absence of any deal for Wayne Rooney on the horizon, Benteke looks exactly the kind of striker that Mourinho could do with. Less so, Ba whose distinctly unimpressive evening came to a close on 64 minutes when he was replaced by Romelu Lukaku, a change that might have been made much earlier. Later, when Mourinho was asked about Benteke he described him as ‘a great player for a certain style of football’, which is no compliment at all.
Mourinho also substituted Mata and introduced Andre Schurrle. By that point there was a case for saying that Villa were on top. They had certainly created the better chances at that point. Agbonlahor had curled a Matt Lowton pass across goal just over. Weimann should have done better with a back-post volley from Benteke’s cross.
There are never more than a few chances to put Chelsea away when they are at home and those passed Villa by. Then came a game-changing two minutes when Ivanovic first caught Benteke with an elbow and was only booked by referee Friend. Then, within two minutes, the Serbian was the most decisive when Lampard struck a free-kick into the box and it was the Chelsea right-back who connected with a powerful header past Guzan. He looked offside when the ball was struck.
The Terry handball, and a fine save from Cech from Weimann followed. Chelsea had hung on which, on a difficult night, is a sign of a team who, whatever the circumstances, will not give up the fight easily.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Lampard; Mata (Schurrle, 65), Oscar (Van Ginkel , 84), Hazard; Ba (Lukaku, 65). Substitutes not used Schwarzer (gk), Mikel, Schurrle, De Bruyne, Azpilicueta.
Aston Villa (4-3-3): Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Clark (Okore, 43), Luna; El Ahmadi (Tonev, 82), Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used Steer (gk), Bennett, Bacuna, Helenius, Stylla.
Referee K Friend (Leciestershire)
Man of the match Delph
Match rating 8