There was a division of the spoils of sorts at Stamford Bridge yesterday, where Aston Villa, with a moral victory, and Chelsea, with an actual one, each felt honour had been satisfied.
Villa, their squad left threadbare by injuries and ineligibility, left West London happy at having forced Chelsea into playing keep-ball and making defensive substitutions in order to preserve a lead given them by Damien Duff on the half-hour. Chelsea, whose ambitions are necessarily more expansive, were content with the three points which maintained their five-point cushion at the Premiership's summit. Four-goal wins may impress supporters and neutrals but Jose Mourinho is by instinct a pragmatist. He knows there are times when simply winning is enough.
"It was time to roll our sleeves up and defend our lead," the Chelsea manager said. "When you are playing to be champions you need to get points, you cannot afford to lose points in stupid circumstances. So you close the door and go home with the points."
Referring to the Continental description for clubs which lead at the halfway stage, a term more relevant in countries where there is a mid-winter break, Mourinho added: "It is not our target to be 'winter champions', we aim to be champions at the end of the season, but it is important to have a five-point advantage with difficult games coming up. It means we can make a mistake. Not that we intend to."
Chelsea, though not demonstrating much fluidity, made few errors yesterday. John Terry could have been sent off for two studs-up challenges - but escaped punishment for the first, which ultimately put Lee Hendrie out of the game. Chelsea also showed signs of imitating Arsenal's desire to score the perfect goal, Arjen Robben in particular frequently taking one touch too many as he looked to walk the ball in. Villa worked hard and stuck to their game plan but rarely looked like scoring. Once Duff had scored, capitalising on a counter-attack expertly led by Robben and poor communication within Villa's makeshift defence, the result had an inevitability about it.
"We had a go and they were nervous at the end," said David O'Leary, the Villa manager. "If you take the goal away there was not much in the game."
O'Leary was more concerned with two more injuries, to Hendrie and Mark Delaney, and an impending suspension for Olof Mellberg. With Martin Laursen and Jlloyd Samuel already out Villa may be without their entire back four for the match against Crystal Palace on January 3, when the suspension kicks in. This after a run of one point from 15. O'Leary insisted: "We won't get into trouble, we just have to get through this period."
Delaney had been returned to right-back to track Robben and did well enough before limping off with a groin injury, even if the Dutchman carved out a fourth-minute chance which Duff missed. Hendrie then wasted several shooting opportunities before Duff took advantage of Robben's break to score his sixth goal in eight matches, each the first of the game.
Villa were unbowed but a shot on the turn by Juan Pablo Angel three minutes later, which Wayne Bridge blocked, and Peter Whittingham's 45th-minute free-kick, which Petr Cech saved, were the closest they would come to equalising. In between, Liam Ridgewell cleared Robben's shot off the line and Terry headed wide from the Dutchman's corner.
The second period was less lively with Claude Makelele emerging as the dominant force as Chelsea concentrated on achieving their 12th clean sheet in 18 League games. Mourinho was asked if the fans were disappointed having been spoiled by the recent glut of goals. He responded: "I think they recognise we have a team that can win the championship but that sometimes it is difficult to win matches and difficult to score goals."
The cheer that greeted the final whistle suggests he is right. It is a long time since Chelsea won the title. In the historical highlights package Chelsea TV shows the one and only championship triumph, in 1955, uses clips headlined "Pathé News".
Goal: Duff (30) 1-0.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ferreira, Gallas, Terry, Bridge; Tiago, Makelele, Lampard; Duff (Smertin, 79), Gudjohnsen (Drogba, 65), Robben (Johnson, 89). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Kezman.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Sorensen; Delaney (Solano, 45), Mellberg, Ridgewell, Barry; De la Cruz, Davis, Berson, Hendrie (L Moore, 79), Whittingham; Angel. Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Drobny, S Moore.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Booked: Chelsea: Robben, Tiago, Terry; Aston Villa: Solano, Ridgewell, Mellberg.
Man of the match: Makelele.