It was the week in which Aston Villa, keen to establish a position among the big beasts, bared their teeth and failed to frighten anyone. Put to the test in the space of seven admittedly arduous days, they lost against Everton in the FA Cup, surrendered third place in the Premier League to Chelsea and were held at home in the Uefa Cup by CSKA Moscow, a result that must be improved on in the second leg on Thursday.
There can be no second chance against Guus Hiddink’s new charges, however. Well beaten 2-0 at Stamford Bridge on Luiz Felipe Scolari’s best day in charge in October, Villa were found wanting again yesterday and for all their undoubted progress in the past 12 months have now won only one of a dozen games against the big four English clubs they are attempting to match. Hiddink had done his homework and knew Martin O’Neill’s team are essentially a counter-attacking side reliant on the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young. Yesterday that pair were allowed little scope, while Emile Heskey, just back from injury, looked nothing like the frightening figure who had once terrorised Hiddink’s Russia at Wembley.
Five other Englishmen started in claret and blue yesterday in front of Fabio Capello, but Chelsea’s patriotic pair Frank Lampard and John Terry were their team’s best players, as they have often been in this troubled season. Troubled though hardly hopeless; Hiddink has taken over a side that is about to meet Juventus in the Champions’ League, should reach the FA Cup semi-final and has the momentum to continue pursuing Liverpool and Manchester United in the League. Already the wily old Dutchman has a notch on his gun that even Jose Mourinho never achieved with Chelsea: a win at Villa Park, where the London side had not succeeded for almost exactly 10 years.
His first game in charge, after watching the 3-1 victory at Watford last weekend, saw Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba more committed, the latter happy to take a turn out on the left occasionally and allow Nicolas Anelka more space down the middle where they both prefer to operate. There was much neat and confident passing in midfield, although Paulo Ferreira offered less of an attacking option from left-back than the suspended Ashley Cole would have done.
Villa, even after 13 unbeaten League matches, needed a bright start for extra self-belief, but found themselves trailing to a lovely goal after 19 minutes. Lampard’s quick feet confounded two defenders before a perfect pass found Anelka moving into the inside-right slot to chip over the advancing Brad Friedel. It was his 21st goal of the season but first in nine League games. Hiddink jumped to his feet for the first time before resuming his seat and stony expression, as if admonishing himself for this outburst of emotion.
There could easily have been a second goal 15 minutes later. Lampard took a corner from in front of adoring Chelsea fans on the right and his England colleague and captain Terry rose above everyone for a header that Friedel had to be at his best to paw away. It would have been an injustice had Villa equalised just after that, not least because Heskey merely slipped over to win them a free-kick from Mark Halsey. From 20 yards Ashley Young curled it against the bar, Heskey heading the rebound feebly wide. The near miss did enliven the home crowd, however, and Villa had plenty of possession from then on. Agbonlahor was gifted a glorious chance when Alex failed to deal with Luke Young’s hopeful punt down the touchline, but Petr Cech, slowly returning to form, saved well, before holding two strong shots from Gareth Barry. Chelsea’s potential at set-pieces through Terry, Alex, Drogba and Ballack was evident again following another excellent delivery by Lampard. Once again Terry headed powerfully at goal and Stilian Petrov had to clear off the line. Hiddink’s first substitution as manager then brought Deco into the game for Salomon Kalou, sitting a little deeper and unable to exert much influence on the game.
Villa went for broke by introducing big John Carew alongside Heskey, but Terry and Alex are not a pair to be intimidated by physical power. Carew glanced his one chance wide and at the other end Drogba, shooting too high, and then the right-back Jose Bosingwa, and Ballack, both thwarted by Friedel, could have allowed Hiddink to relax.
Villa’s manager Martin O’Neill felt that not too much should be read into one result. The two defeats by Chelsea this season nevertheless say something about where his team stand in relation to their admirable ambitions.
Referee: Mark Halsey
Man of the match: Lampard
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content