Like an old regimental flag shot to bits and tattered round the edges, Chelsea carried their unbeaten home League run to 72 games yesterday, but the question they ask themselves today is how much longer? How much longer can they compete in a Premier League title race with almost half their team injured, suspended or running on empty?
After an afternoon of pure drama at Stamford Bridge there are those who might just wish to savour the moment. While Avram Grant's mission may have been to stamp out every last vestige of controversy and excitement from a club who, at times, have sleepwalked to victory, yesterday was different in every respect. A pulse-quickening, full-blooded encounter in which every new plot line seemed more incredible than the last.
But what is left for Chelsea when the dust settles? Ashley Cole and Ricardo Carvalho both suspended for three games while John Terry, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda are all injured. Away at Newcastle on 29 December, Grant faces the prospect of pairing Alex da Costa with Tal Ben Haim in the centre of his defence a duo who have, at times this season, displayed all the reliability under pressure of the Chuckle Brothers.
Lampard's thigh injury is not thought to be as bad as first thought but with Manchester United now seven points clear of Chelsea, the title race is slipping away from Stamford Bridge. "These are not easy times but from the first time I came here it was not easy," Grant said. "We had a lot of injured players then but now it is even worse. But we got through before and we will try to do our best."
It was an absorbing game yesterday, one in which Aston Villa demonstrated a steel worthy of their manager, Martin O'Neill, despite having one fewer player for 34 minutes of the second half. "We were terrific," said O'Neill, whose side are eighth in the Premier League. "When we were back to 10 men each [and the score at 3-3], I thought we could win the game." At times, it seemed that anything was possible.
Take a deep breath and try to follow a tale with more twists than your average piece of Christmas tinsel. In the first half were two goals for Villa from Shaun Maloney, the second gifted to him by a rare howler from Petr Cech. One minute from the interval, Andrei Shevchenko scored from the penalty spot and added a second screamer five minutes after the break. Alex put Chelsea 3-2 ahead, Martin Laursen pulled one back and Ballack's free-kick seemed to have won the game at 4-3 two minutes from time. It was Barry's equalising penalty that was the final act in a remarkable game.
Yet that only told half a tale in which two of three red cards will be appealed. Not only did O'Neill query Chelsea's penalty for their first goal and Zat Knight's red card he also said that the free-kick Ballack scored from should not have been given. Chelsea will dispute that Ashley Cole's clearance off the line from Gabriel Agbonlahor's header at the end of the game was not handball and certainly not deliberate. Precedent suggests both appeals will be rejected.
At the centre of it all was Mr Philip Dowd of Staffordshire, the referee famously described by Paul Jewell once as "Dowd by name, dour by nature". That was the one accusation you could not level against Dowd yesterday there was absolutely nothing dour about this game. Just Shevchenko's luck: he scores two goals and his name does not even make the headlines.
Villa's first was a smartly worked move that started with Agbonlahor. He picked out John Carew at the back post, and his header down to Maloney's feet was easily tucked past Cech. The second was a real collector's piece from Cech whose feeble attempt to stop a tame shot from Maloney was reminiscent of the aberration by Scott Carson watching from the other end for England against Croatia.
Within a minute Michael Essien's scuffed shot had inadvertently put in Ballack, whose tangle with Knight precipitated a theatrical fall from the German. Off went Knight and Shevchenko buried the penalty. The confidence was back: the Ukrainian hit his second five minutes after half-time, a beauty from 25 yards, that flew past Carson.
Then Shevchenko played in Alex for Chelsea's third on 66 minutes, the Brazilian looking a lot more accomplished as a striker than he often does as a defender. In fact, Alex was absent six minutes later when Ashley Young's free-kick from the right was toed past Cech by Martin Laursen, who was left completely unmarked.
Still more to come. Carvalho's lunge at Agbonlahor was a red card and it was 10 men each. No matter. Two minutes from time and Ballack curved a low free-kick into Carson's goal. On the touchline O'Neill was ranting about the debatable decision to give the free-kick for a tackle by Laursen on Joe Cole on the edge of Villa's area.
The final twist came two minutes into extra-time. Another unseemly scramble in the Chelsea area and Agbonlahor's header was cleared off the line by Ashley Cole. Dowd app-eared to take advice from his linesmen and Cole was off for handball. Penalty and the last word went to Gareth Barry.
Goals: Maloney (13) 0-1; Maloney (44) 0-2; Shevchenko (pen, 45) 1-2; Shevchenko (50) 2-2; Alex (66) 3-2; Laursen (72) 3-3; Ballack (88) 4-3; Barry (pen, 90) 4-4.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cech; Ferreira, Alex, Carvalho, A Cole; J Cole, Essien, Lampard (Ballack, 26), Kalou; Pizarro (Mikel, 85), Shevchenko (Wright-Phillips, 82). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Mikel, Ben Haim.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Carson; Mellberg, Knight, Laursen, Bouma (Harewood, 89); Agbonlahor, Reo-Coker, Barry, Young; Carew (Moore, 78), Maloney (Davies, h-t). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Gardner.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Chelsea Essien, Ballack; Aston Villa Reo-Coker.
Sent off: Chelsea Carvalho, A Cole; Aston Villa Knight.
Man of the match: Shevchenko.
Attendance: 41,686.Reuse content