Villas-Boas needs strong defence to repel critics
Chelsea 1 Aton Villa 3
Apart from everyone associated with Aston Villa, the two people who must have enjoyed events here on Saturday most were Gary Cahill and his agent.
According to the Chelsea manager, Andre Villas-Boas, the club are "miles apart" from the Bolton player's wage demands, but even a cursory look at the defending that allowed Villa their first victory at the ground since May 2002 would confirm how badly Cahill is needed. His negotiating position was improved dramatically by the space Villa found in the second half, as the indisciplined David Luiz was constantly exposed.
The fact that even mega-rich Chelsea are haggling over terms suggests a new reality now that the first period of monitoring for Uefa's Financial Fair Play has begun. It makes the prospect of any splurge like the last-minute investment of £67m on Luiz and Fernando Torres a year ago highly unlikely, even though Villas-Boas was forced to admit that his current squad is not strong enough to regain the Premier League title this season.
"Our squad is not good enough to win the League, not this year, not with this distance of points," he said. "It's very, very premature to speak about not finishing in the top four," the Portuguese insisted. "Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham are within reasonable distance for the top four and that's a fact. So there is still plenty to play for. We still have two major trophies to play for, the most prestigious cup in England and the most prestigious one in Europe. We need to get the results and show the talent and quality that we have."
Chelsea supporters who stomped past the press box before and after the final whistle on Saturday appeared to be questioning the talent and quality of the young manager himself. Like the trigger-happy owner Roman Abramovich, they will need patience as he continues to shape a new Chelsea. The few signs of encouragement came from one of his signings, the gifted Juan Mata, and, rather more unexpectedly, Torres, who shook Villa's crossbar with his first intervention as a substitute and neatly set up Didier Drogba for a wasted chance with his second.
As in the previous home game, against Fulham, Chelsea needed to capitalise on that one period of domination. But with James Collins and Richard Dunne repelling everything, Villa held out, and broke away to catch Luiz out three times. Although Petr Cech saved from Gabriel Agbonlahor on the first occasion, Stilyan Petrov and Darren Bent were left free to claim the decisive goals in the final seven minutes.
Earlier Stephen Ireland had scored his first goal for the club to equalise Drogba's penalty, the Ivorian celebrating his 150th Chelsea goal in a manner that some took to be a farewell gesture. Villas-Boas believes he will return after the African Cup of Nations and that players such as Frank Lampard and the unused Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda will not be sold, but the future clearly belongs to the likes of Torres, Mata and a pair who were unusually poor on Saturday, Daniel Sturridge and Oriol Romeu.
As for Villa, their prospects suddenly looks brighter and the immediate past takes on a rosier hue as they start the new year in ninth position, where they finished last May and have spent much of this season, despite all the dissatisfaction with first Gérard Houllier and then Alex McLeish.
"I didn't think it was going to be a cakewalk when I came in," said McLeish of his controversial switch from across the city at Birmingham. "I looked at the squad and there were a lot of young players. It's not a really strong squad experience-wise. We've lost a lot of players over the last couple of years, so it's definitely a transitional period and I was prepared to take the flak.
"I'm still a fledgling in terms of being Villa manager and more results like that will obviously help me cement a relationship with the fans. But I've persevered. There's been a lot of steady results. I'm not counting my chickens – the one thing about football is that when you think you're doing well you get a kick in the teeth." He was also adamant that Bent will not be leaving this month.
Villa have been more impressive away than at home, their counter-attacking at pace more reminiscent now of Martin O'Neill's era and bringing only two defeats in 10 games on the road. It is a style less convincing in front of their own supporters, which is why today's game at home to Swansea is an important one.
Chelsea, meanwhile, will also be in the Midlands for a serious test against Wolves, one not made any easier by their own manager putting the thought in his players' minds that "physically they will be exhausted".
Scorers: Chelsea Drogba 23 pen. Aston Villa Ireland 28, Petrov 83, Bent 86.
Subs: Chelsea Lampard 6 (Romeu, 57), Torres 7 (Sturridge, 62), Bosingwa 5 (Ferreira, 75). A Villa Gardner (Albrighton, 78), Bent (N'Zogbia, 78), Bannan (Petrov, 84).
Booked: Chelsea Terry. Aston Villa Cuellar.
Man of match Ireland. Match rating 6/10. Poss: Chelsea 61% Aston Villa 39%. Attempts on target: Chelsea 5 A Villa 9. Ref M Halsey (Lancs). Att 41,332.
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