Offered the opportunity to move seven points clear at the head of the Premier League before Manchester City's visit to Blackpool today, Chelsea started too slowly yesterday evening and had to be content with a draw on a ground where they were beaten by two headed goals last season. The defence was more solid this time after surviving an early burst from the home side, who needed to score in that impressive period and then found themselves pushed back in the second half.
The champions, unstoppable at the start of the season but badly missing Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard here, have now failed to find the net twice in three games and are fortunate that Manchester United seem incapable of taking advantage. City, who beat them earlier this month, and Arsenal may yet more prove durable challengers.
Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea's manager, seemed happy enough, suggesting a draw was a fair result. "We didn't start so well and conceded two chances but in the second half we played very well," he said. Villa's Gérard Houllier pointed out he had lost Emile Heskey, Marc Albrighton and Luke Young in the 24 hours before the game and was therefore equally satisfied with then outcome.
Despite winning three League titles and the same number of FA Cups since Houllier last encountered them, Chelsea have rarely enjoyed visiting Villa Park, achieving only one win in their last 12 visits. Yesterday it took until half-time for their ambition to extend beyond preventing that poor record worsening. Ancelotti wanted John Terry present even at 90 per cent fitness to combat the set-pieces with which Villa won this fixture last season, yet it was with neat passing and movement on the floor that the visitors were regularly opened up early in the game.
In the third minute, Stewart Downing played Stephen Ireland through in the inside-right position and he ought to have improved on a shot that veered wide of the far post. Three more minutes and John Carew forced Petr Cech into a smart, low save. Before half-time, the home captain Stiliyan Petrov had a fierce shot deflected over the bar and set up Ireland for a drive, bravely blocked by Branislav Ivanovic. The one setback for Villa was losing Richard Dunne with an ankle injury.
Despite increased possession, it took the visitors almost 35 minutes to manage a shot on target – Brad Friedel holding Michael Essien's routine effort – so it was not entirelysurprising that at the intervalAncelotti should replace Gaël Kakutawith the more combative Yuri Zhirkov. The territorial gains they had begun were maintained after the resumption with Zhirkov prominent on the left as Florent Malouda switched flanks. Friedel had to save from the hitherto subdued Nicolas Anelka and Dunne's replacement Ciaran Clark survived a shout for handball in the penalty area.
Villa's midfielders were now required to devote more time to helping a hard-pressed defence and Ashley Young was slowed by a heavy tackle for which Terry was booked. A trio of substitutes arrived, Villa bringing on Nathan Delfouneso for Carew and Chelsea introducing the teenager Josh McEachran and Jose Bosingwa, who was appearing for the first time since an injury at Villa Park exactly a year ago.
There was a flurry of excitement as each side struck a post in the space of three minutes, then wasted a chance apiece right at the death. Chelsea went close to scoring with 14 minutes to play, when Ivanovic headed Malouda's corner against the near post. At the other end, Young curled over a low free-kick that Clark flicked against the frame of the goal. In the final minute Anelka headed Ashley Cole's cross down into the ground, from where it bounced up on to the bar. There was still time for Nigel Reo-Coker, in the clear, to clip the ball over the advancing Cech but wide of a post. Justice, overall, was done.
Bookings: Aston Villa: Warnock, Clark, Young, Ireland. Chelsea: Terry, Essien, McEachran
Referee: Lee Mason
Man of the match: Essien