This was supposed to be a home banker - especially for the club who have broken the bank. Chelsea continued their assault with a victory which owed much to fortune of a different kind than they have enjoyed these past months. It was with luck as well as lucre, and both managers agreed. One imagines Roman Abramovich eventually expects something a little more measured for his money.
Given Villa's away record, no other result had seemed likely. Travel has become a travail. Such a shame they are sponsored by Rover. Of their last 11 away League games they have lost eight and drawn three - the worst record in the Premiership. Peek a little further and the statistics are even worse. They have won just one of their last 23 on the road - a dire sequence that began after they beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last year.
Defeat also means that Villa have now collected their worst- ever points total after seven games of a Premiership season. However there are lies, damned lies and football-club balance sheets. David O'Leary knows much about the latter after his free-spending time at Leeds United, but this result did not do justice to his new team. The performance augured well - if only Villa could win away. There is the grit and a modicum of guile, now they need the goals. The game ended with Chelsea entrenched in their own penalty area.
"It was them hanging on at the end," said O'Leary. "It was like when we went to Arsenal. But the bottom line is we have not taken anything from either game." Juan Pablo was Villa's fallen Angel. After six goals in four starts, the Colombian wasted two gilt-edged chances.
O'Leary selected two strikers - but deployed one of them in the centre of defence, where he had been lacking his three first choices in the Carling Cup in midweek. Alpay returned but, surprisingly, was partnered by Dion Dublin. Marking a teenage triallist at Wycombe was one thing, expecting the veteran striker to pick up Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink quite another. But it was Adrian Mutu who almost undid Villa on eight minutes when he was picked out by Frank Lampard with a superbly flighted 50-yard pass. Astonishingly his first touch, off his knee, was too heavy, and Dublin recovered.
The Villa tactics were clear. O'Leary flooded the midfield and hoped they would not drown. Gavin McCann provided the ballast. However, Mutu was at it again moments later, pulling down another ball from deep only to shoot over, while Damien Duff was permitted an alarming amount of time to turn neatly in centre-field. His left-foot drive veered narrowly wide. The water level was rising - although Alpay appealed for a lifeline when he claimed he was shoved in the Chelsea penalty area from a corner. He was waved away.
Claudio Ranieri had again made changes - five from the starting line-up that sacked Villa's West Midlands rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers. Of those, the metronomic Claude Makelele was the most surprising omission, while Hernan Crespo remained on the bench, joining Joe Cole, who was warming it for the eighth time in nine games. But after the initial storm, Villa settled. The ship was steadying. "We started well and we wanted to score, but sometimes we ran further than the ball," said Ranieri afterwards of the effort put in by his players.
Having regrouped, Villa pressed. Ulises de la Cruz, prominent down the right and again raising questions over Wayne Bridge's defences, found Lee Hendrie, who curled a shot wide. Encouraged, the visitors began to seek out the Ecuadorian, and from another swift break he cut inside only to choose power rather than finesse. Wave after wave of Chelsea attacks began to break too far from goal - until they burst through just before half-time. Mutu's turn created space for a shot which was parried into the path of Hasselbaink, who reacted swiftly to bundle in his sixth goal of the season.
But the home side almost conceded within seconds of the restart. Carlo Cudicini allowed a ball to drop in the area and it span to McCann, who was crowded out. Duff should have then scored his first goal at home when his speed took him away from Dublin on to Hasselbaink's threaded pass. The shot was weak.
Angel, who had played intelligently, spurned the first of his two opportunities. He intercepted Lampard's woeful pass, free on goal, only to scuff his effort beyond the post. It was sign for O'Leary to introduce another striker, Darius Vassell. The game - open and error-ridden - was there to be salvaged. Juan Sebastian Veron thrashed the ball away from his own area with no team-mate in mind. It was rudimentary rather than refined.
Ever the eccentric, Ranieri withdrew Mutu. Now he was playing a 4-5-1 formation and Villa had switched to 4-4-2. It revealed his concern, which became more apparent when he introduced Makelele to provide extra protection and handed Cole his customary cameo for the increasingly ineffective Veron. The cheer was noticeably loud. Cole almost made an immediate impact, forcing a desperate hack over the bar by Alpay. At the other end, Angel missed the clearest chance of all, screwing the ball wide off the post as it fell to him six yards out.
"No disrespect to Chelsea, but they were the luckiest team out today," O'Leary said. Few would argue. Certainly not Ranieri. "That is true," he said. "They deserved a draw." At least.
Chelsea 1 Aston Villa 0
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 41,182Reuse content