Ehiogu hands out another favour

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The Independent Football

AS CHELSEA move into podium position in the Premiership they need to acknowledge the generous assistance they are receiving from theopposition.

AS CHELSEA move into podium position in the Premiership they need to acknowledge the generous assistance they are receiving from theopposition.

Last week Frank Sinclair's own goal rescued a last gasp point for them at Leicester and yesterday it was the outstretched boot of Aston Villa'scentre-back Ugo Ehiogu which deflected a shot by Dan Petrescu into the net for the only score of the match.

"We didn't get what we deserved," Villa's manager John Gregory, complained.

On the contrary, they got exactly what they deserved from this one-sided affair - nothing. His team had leaked nine goals to Chelsea in threematches last season and clearly the intention was not to let that sort of thing happen again. Indeed, Gregory cheerfully admitted as much. "We hadto try to stop them playing and we did that quite well early on." It was, therefore, much to Chelsea's credit that they managed to lift the contestfrom the realms of the dire to the tolerably watchable, with the added bonus of a win for the home fans.

Gianluca Vialli, whose command of English is expanding as rapidly as his team are gaining coherence, said he was proud of the way they hadground out this victory. "We defended with composure, we showed solidity - is that the correct word? - and I am very pleased. It is very satisfyingto win 1-0 against opposition like that because that was a test."

With the imperious Marcel Desailly restored to the centre of defence after injury, Chelsea looked much more assured than they had done atLeicester, though they had little to contend with in the way of threats, since Dion Dublin had a spectacular off-day and Julian Joachim, for all hisscurrying down the flanks, achieved little.

Their one meaningful strike came from the unfortunate Ehiogu, a blistering header in the 35th minute from Alan Thompson's corner which Ed DeGoey did well to thrust aside for a corner. The remainder of the first half was a catalogue of Chelsea chances and misses as the busy littleGianfranco Zola and the ubiquitous Petrescu darted around and among the tall Villa rearguard.

Chelsea could have been in front, and should have been, with only 10 minutes gone. Petrescu, beautifully put through by Zola, lifted his shot overthe advancing David James but also narrowly over the bar and on to the roof of the net. Then Gustavo Poyet, fed by Petrescu, shovelled anothergood opening high and wide.

The midfield battle, tense and close, produced five bookings in the first half and another one after the interval but the one offence the busy NealeBarry missed was the crunching tackle by Ehiogu that felled Zola inside the penalty zone. Loud appeals produced no response from the referee,though both managers thought it should have been a penalty.

A minute later he was prepared to give a free-kick outside the area after Zola had again been sent tumbling, this time by a tackle that cost LeeHendrie a booking. The excellent curling shot by Zola was turned over by James at full stretch. Jody Morris, Zola and Petrescu all missed finechances, though the tiny Italian almost got on the scoresheet on the stroke of half-time with a glancing header that James grabbed as he fell to hisright.

The first 10 minutes of the second half was where Villa lost it. Within five minutes the ball was nestling in their net via Petrescu's shot andEhiogu's boot after the defender's miscued headed clearance had been picked up by the Chelsea wing-back, and the Romanian was prepared toaccept full credit for it.

There was praise from his manager, too. "Dan is a terrific player," Vialli said. "He can cross the ball, play great passes to the strikers and is also agood finisher. Today he was in the right place at the right time."

Within 90 seconds there was nearly another as Petrescu headed back from the far post for Chris Sutton to send his bicycle kick narrowly high.Otherwise Sutton was a severe disappointment and he was replaced 20 minutes from the end by Tore Andre Flo.

Before Villa had regained their composure Thompson became the sixth booking for a very late tackle on Dennis Wise, and then Poyet stolethrough a flat-footed defence to send his diving header inches the wrong side of an upright.

"We didn't get started in the second half and found ourselves a goal down," Gregory said. "After that we did everything we could to get back in it,but it wasn't to be." In fact, the flow was with Chelsea, apart from a shot which the substitute Paul Merson sent into the second tier of the standsbehind De Goey's net.

Petrescu and Zola set up Sutton but for some reason he chose to sidefoot a shot straight at James from a dozen yards. Soon after the Villagoalkeeper had his moment of fallibility, playing pat-a-cake with a Zola cross but getting away with it because there was no blue shirt near enoughto profit.

The fact that it wasn't Villa's afternoon in the heat was shown when Steve Stone was brought on as a substitute but lasted only 11 minutes beforedamaging his back and limping off. In the end, with three minutes left, Vialli felt safe enough to remove the marvellous Zola and give anintroduction to the English big time to his new £3.5m signing from Vicenza, Gabrielle Ambrosetti.