Chelsea remain unbeaten under Jose Mourinho, but once again they might have finished second best in the second city.
Chelsea remain unbeaten under Jose Mourinho, but once again they might have finished second best in the second city. At St Andrew's three weeks ago Birmingham tested their ability to weather a storm and were understandably miffed that the London swells emerged 1-0 winners despite looking as if Hurricane Bruce had hit them. Yesterday Aston Villa huffed and puffed without quite managing to blow the house down and just about deserved to deny Chelsea their fifth successive victory.
It was an eventful enough affair in which the referee, Rob Styles, demonstrated his impartiality by upsetting both teams in equal measure, his most controversial decision being to give Didier Drogba a yellow card instead of a penalty when it looked without the benefit of television replays as though the striker had been clipped by Ulises De La Cruz. The Ecuadorian defender insisted: "I did not touch him. A dive like that belongs in the swimming pool."
Villa's manager David O'Leary was honest enough to admit: "I thought we got lucky. It looked a penalty to me." Less surprisingly, Mourinho agreed with him, and even suggested that the officials were too heavily influenced by the noise and arm-waving from the home team dug-out, where O'Leary's assistant Roy Aitken constantly made his feelings known to them.
"The man of the match was the referee, because of that decision and he cost us the points," said Chelsea's manager, who could now receive a first invitation to discuss his observations with the Football Association. "If a similar situation happens in the future with Thierry Henry or Ruud van Nistelrooy, we will see if it is given. It was more than a penalty; in some countries it would have been two penalties. Maybe I have to stop being so polite and start making a noise. The people in the Aston Villa dug-out were controlling the game."
Mourinho had been concerned even before the game that a fortnight of international football would hinder Chelsea's preparations more than most clubs. Playing two-a-side practice matches with what remained of his first-team squad must have been of limited value, and the returning wanderers took some time to find a rhythm. O'Leary, who is likely to be rewarded for the club's continued progress - they finished sixth last season after lying 18th in December - with an improved contract, opted to match up formations by moving Nolberto Solano inside, just behind the two strikers, while the left-footed Gareth Barry replaced him on the right. That meant a lack of real width in either team unless the full-backs were prepared to provide it, which they managed only sporadically.
Despite Solano's trickery for an hour, Chelsea were solid in defence. Ricardo Carvalho is settling into English football more confidently with every game, and they have still conceded only one goal; moreover, in four games until yesterday opponents had been allowed a mere four shots on target. There was soon a fifth, a free-kick from 25 yards curled in with less sheer force than normal by Thomas Hitzlsperger, which Petr Cech theatrically punched away. It was as close as Villa came for a long time, though they enjoyed a good share of the ball and whipped in some dangerous crosses.
Chelsea did manage some reprisals. Early on Drogba drove John Terry's long diagonal pass across goal and in the 26th minute he received from Joe Cole and smacked the crossbar from 20 yards. Mateja Kezman's header over the bar at one end and Juan Pablo Angel's volley at the other concluded an even first period.
Early in the second half Chelsea seemed to be taking a grip, which became loosened by their own double substitution. Frank Lampard and Cole worked a number of shooting chances at the end of the sort of sustained passing moves Mourinho wants to encourage, forcing Thomas Sorensen to one good, low save. On the hour, however, an impatient change brought on Adrian Mutu and Eidur Gudjohnsen as extra strikers alongside Drogba in a formation that failed to gel.
Much more effective was O'Leary's decision to replace a tiring Angel with the teenager Luke Moore, whose clever touch and turn set up Darius Vassell for what ought to have been the winning goal. The England man clipped the chance wide from a few yards out. An eventful last 10 minutes began with Drogba moving on to a smart pass from Chelsea's third substitute, Alexei Smertin, and going down under De La Cruz's challenge. Styles had a long look and decided on a harsh booking rather than the penalty Chelsea were screaming for.
Whether or not outraged by the decision, they pushed forward, Drogba and Terry having headers saved, and Gudjohnsen shooting wildly over the bar. Even Mutu, previously the object of much gesticulating from the manager, and looking like a lost boy, roused himself to lob the goalkeeper, forcing Mark Delaney to head over his own bar.
"We had control of the game but couldn't score," said Mourinho, who also confirmed that Damien Duff and Wayne Bridge, rested yesterday, will have a part to play in the opening Champions' League match away to Paris St-Germain on Tuesday.
The home supporters were less impressed, suggesting in robust language that Chelsea might not win very much at all. We will see.Reuse content