Injury is Chelsea's only opponent right now. A damaged ankle for Joe Cole, only just returned from the casualty list, and sore backs for John Terry and Ashley Cole have more resonance for England this week. But together with Nicolas Anelka being withdrawn at half-time with a leg problem and the lengthy roll call of absentees that has already depleted Luiz Felipe Scolari's squad, these are testing times for the manager. Not that it appeared so yesterday. A 10th game unbeaten for Scolari and a perfect 10 at that.
For the first half this was, maybe, the best Chelsea have played in the Roman Abramovich era. It was that good, at times simply sensational, with Frank Lampard in the kind of imperious, threatening, relentless form that sets an awesome benchmark. "Very, very well," said Scolari when asked how he felt the midfielder had played. "And that's not just one very." The second 45 minutes was, in a sense, equally formidable as Chelsea barely allowed Villa – previously vibrant, dangerous Villa – a sniff.
Scolari had talked about not having the "untouchables" of Jose Mourinho's squad – players who are too important to be dropped – but there were 14 untouchables yesterday. This was supposed to be the match – with Deco, Michael Essien, Ricardo Carvalho, Didier Drogba out and with Alex suffering a late recurrence of his injury – that would test to the max Chelsea's ability to hold on to that fabled 85-game home unbeaten record. It wasn't anything of the kind.
Indeed Martin O'Neill, Villa's manager, admitted that he had awoken yesterday morning "really believing" his team would win, only for that hope to be smashed to pieces. "They were absolutely brilliant," O'Neill said of Chelsea. "Absolutely brilliant. We would have had to have our best players play at their best just to compete, never mind anything else."
Scolari's post-match comments took on the look of a medical bulletin. "For me it was the most important game in the season so far," he said of the performance, the result and the aftermath of which have left his team top of the league going into the international break. "We are in first position and we have 10 days to recuperate our players." There was then the rundown and some good news: Terry and Joe Cole, he felt, would be ready with "three days' rest".
Chelsea came out all guns blazing. And it was like shooting fish in a barrel. In the Villa goal, Brad Friedel was a startled, shell-shocked figure beating out powerful shots from Michael Ballack and the impressive Florent Malouda before Lampard, from close range, headed into the side-netting following clever work from Anelka, who later crashed a shot against the crossbar.
Chelsea surged ahead. Malouda, again, sped down the left, picked out Lampard and, on the area's edge he cleverly waited for Joe Cole's run before slipping the ball into his path. One touch and Cole, back in the team after an absence of three games injured, hammered his shot high into the net to reward a blistering, mesmeric opening quarter. They didn't relent. A Lampard free-kick had Friedel scrambling before the American saved from Malouda. Another goal was inevitable and once more Lampard was instrumental, scampering down the left to create space and find the overlapping Ashley Cole, whose cutback was met by Ballack. Friedel pushed out the first side-footed effort, and Anelka's follow-up before the striker finally buried the chance.
Anelka departed at half-time and then Joe Cole, after a hefty challenge from Stilian Petrov, limped off before Terry's back began to cause him problems. It broke up Chelsea's momentum while O'Neill made changes of his own and, finally, there was a chink. Terry, clearly troubled, erred and his header back to Petr Cech fell short, allowing Gabriel Agbonlahor to nip in. With the goalkeeper stranded he crossed for John Carew, but with the goal empty, the ball was too far in front of the striker.
Friedel managed to keep out another Ballack shot while Lampard's whipped cross bounced just ahead of Malouda's outstretched leg before only Carlos Cuellar's fortuitous intervention stopped the winger as he latched on to another pass from Lampard. A desperate tackle from James Milner then prevented Lampard while a header from Salomon Kalou was somehow fumbled over by Friedel.
"I think that was the best they have played," O'Neill said of the hosts. And he was right, which was extraordinary testimony to Chelsea and their world-class manager.
Goals: J Cole (21) 1-0; Anelka (44) 2-0.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, A Cole; Mikel; J Cole (Kalou, 57), Lampard, Ballack, Malouda (Belletti, 83); Anelka (Di Santo, 46). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Bridge, Ferreira, Mancienne.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young (Milner, h-t), Laursen, Davies (Cuellar, h-t), Shorey; Reo-Coker, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew (Harewood, 72). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Knight, Salifou, Gardner.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Aston Villa Cuellar, Petrov, Shorey.
Man of the match: Lampard.
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