Pretenders only flatter to deceive

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Maybe it was the uncommonly warm temperatures, maybe another week of European disappointment had persuaded these two teams they were not as good as we thought they were. Expectations that Stamford Bridge would celebrate two of the more cerebral Premiership sides fell badly away yesterday after Frank Leboeuf's equaliser for Chelsea on the stroke of half-time, his third of the season, had hinted that something better was to come.

Depending on how Liverpool would fare at Leicester, the possibility existed for both Chelsea and Villa to go to the top of the Premiership table. Both had their moments but neither will look back on this with any satisfaction.

Diego Maradona missed it and perhaps he will reflect he was fortunate. En route to Spain, he had stopped off in London for dinner with Gianluca Vialli, but surrounded by autograph seekers he decided to beat a hasty retreat.

Surprisingly, considering that they had contributed to another inquest into the standing of English football, with their failure to dispose of part-time Swedish opposition in midweek, Villa settled quickly and might have gone ahead early when Savo Milosevic escaped attention but was unable to beat Kevin Hitchcock with his header.

That followed Steve Staunton's accurate centre and as long as Villa continued to enjoy better delivery of the ball from wide positions they would always look the more likely.

They went in front after 17 minutes when Craig Burley's foul on Sasa Curcic presented them with the chance to concoct a clever free-kick. Mark Draper shaped as if to shoot but instead it was Dwight Yorke who casually flicked the ball into Andy Townsend's stride. The former Chelsea skipper delivered a shot containing power as well as swirl and it caught Hitchcock by surprise. Curcic had a glorious opportunity to double Villa's advantage. However after exchanging passes with Draper and swerving away from two challenges he found Hitchcock this time alert to the danger.

Chelsea's progress up to now was stilted, principally because both Mark Hughes and Vialli were finding their movements held in close check by Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu.

Ehiogu's treatment of Hughes, sometimes fair, sometimes not, was not to the Welshman's liking and the home crowd began to share his frustration.

Passions rose and in the last 12 minutes of the first half we saw four bookings - a figure that was later to reach six, five belonging to the Midlanders. Another foul gave Chelsea their equaliser. Dan Petrescu, impeded by Townsend, saw his free kick come back to him whereupon he flighted a precise ball over the advancing Villa rearguard to the back post where Leboeuf had stolen in unmarked. The Frenchman's delicate finish was immaculate.

After the interval Chelsea introduced Jody Morris for Erland Johnsen and reverted to a traditional back four. They had the better of the second period but only occasionally were able to turn their markers. Subsequently the service to the front men did not improve.

With Leboeuf you always have a chance and the tall defender powered a header on goal from a left wing corner which Michael Oakes had to be smart to turn over. He was also there on the line when Milosevic reacted first to the rebound after Hitchcock had half-stopped a drive from Fernando Nelson.

Goals: Townsend (18) 1-0; Leboeuf (45) 1-1.

Chelsea (5-3-2): Hitchcock; Petrescu, Johnsen (Morris h-t), Leboeuf, Clarke, Myers; Di Matteo, Burley (Spencer, 86), Wise; Hughes, Vialli. Substitutes not used: Colgan (gk), Duberry, Nicholls.

Aston Villa (5-3-2): Oakes; Nelson, Ehiogu, Southgate, Staunton, Wright; Draper, Townsend, Curcic (Taylor 79); Milosevic (Johnson, 64), Yorke. Substitutes not used: Rachel (gk), McGrath, Joachim.

Man of the match: Leboeuf.

Bookings: Chelsea: Di Matteo. Aston Villa: Milosevic, Townsend, Ehiogu, Johnson, Nelson.

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees) Attendance: 27,729