Chelsea spent the first half napping but came out firing in the second, and were unlucky not to have scored on the day. However, Villa should certainly have have found the net as well, and a draw seems like the fairest result for a well-fought game. This is a fixture that's caused Chelsea significant trouble in the past, and with a host of key players out the Blues might not have been heavily favoured, they were (and should have been) expected to win the match. Gerard Houllier had other plans though, ditching the 4-4-2 in order to shore up his midfield and play a rapid counterattacking game down the flanks.
For the first half, however, it seemed like Villa's tactical shift was nothing more than wasted effort. Chelsea were very poor - every player from the midfield forward was guilty of at least one dire pass, and they never had any time on the pitch with Villa pressing very hard. Stephen Ireland should have put the ball away within the first couple of minutes (he missed the post by no more than three inches with Petr Cech beaten), and a mistake from Gael Kakuta in his first Premier League start handed another chance to Villa, only for John Carew to see his far-post shot tipped with by the keeper.
Despite Villa's star centreback Richard Dunne being forced off the field inside the opening quarter of an hour (replaced by Ciaran Clark), the Blues were offering nothing whatsoever in attack, limited entirely to rather dire long-range efforts. Michael Essien's shooting was especially wild, at one point slicing a volley out to the far touchline. Although there was certainly some decent movement from the front three, nobody was on the same page as anyone else. Backheels from Nicolas Anelka rolled out of play with Malouda running in the wrong direction, while Kakuta made spinning, jinking runs with nobody in support. However, for all of the issues we were having on the ball, defensive solidarity slowly returned and Villa were finding the back four incredibly hard to penetrate. Branislav Ivanovic, who had previously been guilty of giving the ball away with reckless abandon, redeemed himself and then some by putting in a spectacular block on a goal-bound effort courtesy of Stephen Ireland.
The first half petered out with Chelsea seeing more of the ball but still with very little going on in the way of adventure. Essien managed the Blues' first shot on target with another long ranger hit right at Friedel, but it certainly wasn't enough to convince anyone that the visitors were firing on all cylinders. It's hard to imagine Carlo Ancelotti giving anyone the hairdryer treatment, but the performance certainly warranted a good shouting at in the dressing room. When the teams emerged in the second half, they did so without Gael Kakuta, who was withdrawn in favour of Yuri Zhirkov. The Russian was deployed in unfamiliar territory up front, with Malouda moving over to the right side to accommodate him.
Zhirkov's appearance made an immediate impact, and Chelsea were on the front foot from the whistle. Their movement was cleverer and passing was far more incisive - within the first few minutes the Blues had generated three real chances, the last of which fell to Nicolas Anelka only for Friedel to save smartly with his legs. Villa, meanwhile, were completely incapable of getting out of their half, with Essien and Mikel essential in performing mopping up duty around the centre circle. Chelsea were very close to scoring several times, but just failing to get the final ball right. Slowly, Villa clawed their way back into things through the towering figure of John Carew, but it was still the visitors who looked the more likely to score.
Frayed nerves were starting to show - in the last half hour no less than six yellow cards were issued by the referee. Eventually Ancelotti turned his his bench again, introducing Jose Bosingwa and Josh McEachran for Paulo Ferreira and Ramires. Bosingwa certainly needed game time, but Ferreira had put in his best performance of the season to date for the Blues, and I'm not convinced that pulling him at a crucial stage in a tight match was the right move. Ramires, on the other hand, had been mediocre, and swapping him for Chelsea's most promising youth talent was a great move. McEachran is superbly composed on the ball and was instantly involved in Chelsea's best play, threading in a set of excellent passes and nearly wiggling through a crowd of players in the Villa box before being eased out of possession.
The last fifteen minutes of the game were utter chaos. Chelsea rattled the woodwork twice, Villa hit the post, and Nigel Reo-Coker missed a glorious opportunity to win the game and write his name in the Villa's history books. However, the goals just wouldn't come, not for Ivanovic, not for Anelka (who contrived to miss a header from four yards and the goal at his mercy), and not for James Collins, who found Cech's left post with a header after a magnificent delivery and flick by the combined talents of Ashley Young and Ciaran Clark. It was Reo-Coker's miss which was most egregious, though. After dispossessing McEachran - the Chelsea player's only mistake in the match - with just a minute left of stoppage time, Reo-Coker rushed forward into the penalty box, scooped the ball over the advancing Cech... and missed the goal by six feet.
That would have been the winner for the home side, but I was completely unworried through the whole sequence of play - after I had worked out it was Reo-Coker on the ball a goal was at best the seventh most likely outcome of the play (right behind 'Graham ascends into a minor deity) - it just never occurred to me that he might actually score.
Shortly thereafter, the whistle blew for fulltime, and both sides were left wondering what might have been if not for the squandering of several chances. All in all, a draw was probably a fair (if disappointing) result.
- Bosingwa played for the first time in a year, and looked a little rusty but demonstrated the ability to provide a real threat down the right side. His return should give some balance to Chelsea's attack.
- McEachran was at one point booked for a tackle that was neither a foul nor a yellow-card offence. Instead of making a scene he simply got on with the game. Some of our veterans would do well to learn from the rookie in this regard.
- Yuri Zhirkov played very well as a forward, although he clearly has things to learn about the intricacies of striker play (like getting into positions for crosses). It was a pleasant surprise to see how he transformed the fortunes of the team when he came on at halftime.
- Chelsea crossed too much. Villa's central defenders might have had trouble with Didier Drogba, if he was fit, but they certainly weren't going to be beaten in the air against the likes of Malouda and Anelka very often.
- I miss Frank Lampard.