Seriously ill Petrov an inspiration
Aston Villa 2 Chelsea 4
Sunday 01 April 2012
Grief continues to follow Aston Villa around. They were the visitors to Swansea on the day on which Gary Speed's death was announced, their recent home game against Bolton was postponed following Fabrice Muamba's collapse and now they worry for Stiliyan Petrov.
More prosaically, their supporters fret over the possibility of relegation despite a fine late fightback with two goals in three minutes. As Villa Park was sniffing the unlikeliest of victories, Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres struck at the other end in the final eight minutes as Chelsea ended a run of three consecutive Premier League away defeats with a thrilling victory.
Petrov undergoes his first bout of treatment tomorrow as he contests a battle infinitely more important than the one his side fought and lost here on the pitch. Inspirational leader that he is, he watched with his wife and two young sons and gave a friendly wave just before kick-off as a statement read out on his behalf spoke of his confidence in fighting the acute leukaemia with which he was diagnosed on Friday.
"He was in before the game and everybody embraced him," said Villa's manager Alex McLeish. "He inspired a lot of people today." Whether the Bulgarian will be back in claret and blue is doubtful. At the age of 32, with 106 international caps and just over a year left on his contract, he can be forgiven for having other targets, although the club insist the words "for now" became dropped off in translation in the reports in his homeland quoting Petrov as saying: "Football is over."
This was an afternoon of applause all round; mainly, of course, for Petrov but also for the ebb and flow of a fine game. Chelsea's players loosened up in white number 19 T-shirts with Petrov's name on the back and the message 'Our thoughts are with you' on the front. By the time the fans led one minute's clapping in the 19th minute, Roberto Di Matteo's team had scored one and threatened others.
The breakthrough was only nine minutes in coming. Torres, having already struck Shay Given's feet from a one-on-one chance set up by David Luiz's superb long pass, was denied in an intricate link-up involving Salomon Kalou and Juan Mata but Daniel Sturridge forced the ball home left-footed at the far post.
The Villa Park faithful has been urging McLeish to give youth its fling and, partly out of necessity, the manager did here. Petrov's absence reduced the average age of the outfield players to 23, with 16-year-old Jack Grealish among the substitutes.
For a while, the inexperience showed. John Obi Mikel's venomous 35-yarder took two deflections on its journey straight to Given before Mata dinked brilliantly over the keeper and against the far post.
Although James Collins headed a good chance over and Gabriel Agbonlahor was superbly denied by Petr Cech's right boot, the game seemed to be going Chelsea's way with something to spare when Ivanovic chested down Mata's left-wing corner and toe-poked home early in the second half. "We thought there might have been a handball there and maybe Torres high-kicked before the first goal when Nathan Baker was diving to head the ball," said McLeish. "I think I've killed an albatross."
Against the odds, though, the revival came. Collins climbed highest to despatch a terrific header from Eric Lichaj's long 76th minute throw and the young American right-back soon struck with the equaliser – his first Premier League goal – by appearing behind Ashley Cole to turn in Marc Albrighton's driven low centre from the left.
Only once since 1999 had Villa lost at home to these opponents and the thought of completing a 2011-12 double over them must have flashed before their eyes. But this is a not an Andre Villas-Boas team; it is one that has rediscovered its resolve. Even with Didier Drogba out with a foot injury suffered in training and David Luiz limping off with an ankle ligament problem late in the first half – both will be assessed before the Champions League return against Benfica on Wednesday – Chelsea found it within themselves to dig deeper.
Ivanovic restored the lead by heading in after Torres nodded on Malouda's corner, then Sturridge superbly set the Spaniard up in stoppage time to rifle home his first League goal since late September and only his eighth for the club.
"It was an emotional day," Di Matteo said. "It was great to see the football community respond like that but I thought we controlled the game apart from that few minutes. We had many chances. I am pleased for Fernando. He has been providing goals and now he has scored."
It's onwards and upwards for a manager who has now overseen six victories and a draw from his eight matches in charge. For Villa, the landscape is different. But at least we were all talking about football at the end; just as Stiliyan Petrov would want it.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Given; Lichaj, Collins, Baker, Warnock; Bannan, Herd (Albrighton, 70) Ireland, Gardner; Weimann (Heskey, 82), Agbonlahor.
Chelsea (4-1-2-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz (Cahill, 45), Cole; Mikel; Lampard, Kalou (Ramires, 59); Sturridge, Torres, Mata (Malouda, 74).
Referee Lee Mason.
Man of the match Mata (Chelsea).
Match rating 9/10.
Champions' League: Quarter-final second legs
Barcelona (0) v Milan (0) (7.45pm, Sky Sports 2)
As the only one of the four favourites not to win their first leg, or score an away goal, Barcelona may be a little edgy, but the Catalans are still strongly fancied to progress to a semi-final against Chelsea or Benfica. Goalkeeper Christian Abbiati may have kept them at bay but is likely to be even busier in the Nou Camp.
Bayern Munich (2) v Marseille (0) (7.45pm, Sky Sports 4)
In contrast to Abbiati, Marseille found their goalkeeper wanting in Germany, third-choice Elinton Andrade gifting a crucial opening goal to Mario Gomez. Arjen Robben's second ought to mean that the second leg is a formality and that the Germans will go on to meet Read Madrid under Jose Mourinho, whose Internazionale beat them in the 2010 final.
Chelsea (1) v Benfica (0) (7.45pm, ITV1)
Upset by having so little time to prepare for a semi-final first leg, Chelsea must first concentrate on seeing off Benfica, a task that has been made easier by their solid performance in Lisbon, where surprise choice Salomon Kalou scored the only goal. Warning: Benfica can hardly be as poor again.
Real Madrid (3) v Apoel Nicosia (0) (7.45pm, Sky Sports 2)
Apoel's run may have been something of a fairy tale but big bad Jose is about to ensure it is brought to a close on Wednesday. He praised the Cypriots' organisation in the first leg, which denied Madrid until he sent on Kaka to open them up in the last 25 minutes.
Arsenal strengthened their grip on a top-four finish with a straightforward 3-0 win over Hull City.
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