Chelsea revival halted as Villa discover their fighting spirit

Chelsea 3 Aston Villa 3
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The Independent Football

By the time Carlo Ancelotti emerged from the huddle of Chelsea players celebrating their third goal yesterday he was 10 paces past the touchline and about five minutes from one of the most important wins at the club. He patted his hair back into place, took a moment to compose himself and then watched as his team threw it away all over again.

It was a wonderful match and a very early contender for the best game of 2011 but for Ancelotti it must have felt like he was trapped in a recurring nightmare. It turns out that Wednesday's victory over Bolton Wanderers was not the moment that Chelsea exited their twilight zone of bad results; they are still capable of tossing away points as the title race heats up.

Judging by his players' reaction to John Terry's 89th-minute goal, Ancelotti remains popular among his players, although history will tell him that does not guarantee Chelsea managers longevity. What he needs now is a run of wins and none more important than when the leaders Manchester United visit west London on 1 March.

It was in the bag at 3-2 to Chelsea just before the fourth official put up the board to announce five minutes of injury time at the end of the match. Didier Drogba had battled his way back from a miserable performance to score the equaliser with six minutes left. Then when Chelsea's Captain Collision scored the third goal it looked like they had nailed that famous win to climb closer to United.

That they did not was a testament to a Villa team who looked badly short of anything that might loosely be described as fighting spirit in their defeat to Manchester City last week. But they had it yesterday, in outstanding performances from Brad Friedel, Emile Heskey and Ashley Young, right through to assistant Gary McAllister who spent the aftermath of Villa's celebrations offering to fight a member of the Chelsea staff.

It is rare to see a game in which one team wants to win so badly that even in an indifferent run of form, and amid continued setbacks, they score a crucial goal in the last few minutes. But to watch both teams do it was one of those occasional privileges that the Premier League offers up to remind us how much we love it – in spite of all its faults.

It was a performance that did more for the Villa manager, Gérard Houllier, than it did for Ancelotti who came out later wearing that slightly shell-shocked expression that accompanies Chelsea's more careless performances. Houllier had the puffed-up demeanour of a man who thinks that he is on the brink of being proved right.

Villa still have a long way back after a run before yesterday of five defeats in six games although it was impossible not to be impressed by the way in which they took the match to Chelsea. Heskey went through one of those temporary transformations when he plays more like Drogba than the Heskey who was such a frustration for all those years – although his form has been much better under Houllier.

Young took the game to Ashley Cole down Villa's right and was the outstanding player of the first half, scoring Villa's equaliser four minutes before the break. With a 2-1 lead and Chelsea coming at them in the second half it was the likes of Friedel and Richard Dunne who rose to the occasion and it was right that they went home with a point at least.

When Ciaran Clark, another fine performer for Villa, flicked his 91st-minute equaliser past Petr Cech, the cameras at Stamford Bridge picked out Randy Lerner, the Villa owner, jumping into the embrace of his chief executive Paul Faulkner. It was a great moment that showed football's power to make even billionaires behave like beery teenagers – just a pity we do not see a bit more of it from Chelsea's Russian custodian.

If Ancelotti was looking for signs that his team are gearing up for the last 18 league games of the season then there was an encouraging performance from Frank Lampard in just his third start since August, while Terry, coaxing Jeffrey Bruma through the 19-year-old centre-half's first league start, did not win everything against Heskey but his was an influential display nonetheless.

Villa picked up six bookings in the first half, seven in the entire game, which means they get an automatic £25,000 fine from the Football Association. They earned two arguing with referee Lee Mason when he awarded a penalty against James Collins on 23 minutes for jumping on top of Florent Malouda in the area. It looked marginally the right call. Lampard smashed in the penalty.

Despite that Villa had the best of the first half although they might have had a couple more bookings including Heskey, subsequently cautioned in the second half, for a late challenge on Terry. No arguments about Paulo Ferreira's clumsy tackle on Clark that earned Villa a penalty, Young putting it away.

A combination of his earlier foul on Cole, and then an exuberant goal celebration, earned the Villa winger the recognition of the home crowd. "Whose the w***** in the snood?" was the chant – the first time, but surely not the last, we will hear that one. It was Young's ball from left to right to Stewart Downing two minutes after the break that was crossed to Heskey, who beat Bruma to head in Villa's second.

At 2-1 down we saw the best of Chelsea and were it not for Friedel they would have overwhelmed Villa. He saved brilliantly from Lampard after the hour and stopped a shot from substitute Salomon Kalou in the build-up to Drogba's goal. When it rebounded to the striker in the 84th minute he drilled in a low shot that eluded four Villa players.

Terry's goal in the 89th minute originated when substitute Marc Albrighton lost the ball but it was Albrighton who subsequently crossed for Villa's dramatic equaliser. Chelsea misjudged their offside line and Cole allowed Clark to sneak in and score. It was a breathtaking end to a great game, although as Chelsea's players left amid recriminations that looked like no consolation to them at all.

This week's fixtures: (7.45 unless stated)

Tomorrow: Blackpool v Birmingham (8.0), Fulham v West Brom (8.0), Man Utd v Stoke (8.0).

Wednesday: Arsenal v Man City, Aston Villa v Sunderland, Blackburn v Liverpool (8.0), Bolton v Wigan (8.0), Everton v Tottenham (8.0), Newcastle v West Ham, Wolves v Chelsea.