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Frank Lampard earns Chelsea a Champions League berth

Gareth Copley

It didn't matter, in the end, how the three points came, as long as they did. Bar a miracle, Chelsea guaranteed themselves a top four finish with a 2-1 win against Aston Villa, and the drama might have made it even more gratifying. Because there was plenty of drama. A major club record broken by Frank Lampard? Check. Red cards? Check. Injuries? Check. That it was a come-from-behind victory in a match this important seemed almost an afterthought.

The first half was an unmitigated disaster. While the rout at Stamford Bridge last December began with an early goal from Fernando Torres, it was the Villans who began with a flourish on Saturday. Christian Benteke is their version of Romelu Lukaku -- powerful, fast and deadly -- and he seemed intent on putting the lie to Chelsea's supposed advantage in the race for a Champions League berth.

Gary Cahill demonstrated quite astonishing incompetence in backing off the big Belgian once Yacouba Sylla had slipped him in down the channel. Cahill refused to make a challenge, and was pushed so deep into his own box that Benteke was able to slide home a straightforward finish at the near post. Petr Cech, wrongfooted and unable to recover, didn't exactly cover himself in glory there either.

One might have expected a strong response from the Autobots, especially considering the disappointment at Stamford Bridge in midweek. Instead, we got... Ramires going insane. That was nice. Within a few minutes of Benteke opening the scoring, the Brazilian scythed down the striker and picked up a booking. That would turn out to be pretty bad news about half an hour later.

In the meantime, Chelsea were abject. The team was an incoherent mess. Juan Mata was poor. Demba Ba was poorer (can we stop missing one on ones please?). Victor Moses, like a winged horse which has no wings, is actually a donkey and is also dead, was worse than the simile I just wrote. Villa weren't great, but they were threatening to a) do more damage and b) do surprise field surgery on Cesar Azpilicueta's skull, with Benteke showing another side of his game in delivering a vicious elbow to the fullback's temple.

And Chelsea weren't exactly being angels either. John Terry brought down Scylla after a Ramires error in midfield that had the hosts baying for a red card*, and they got the sending off they were hoping for when Ramires put in a high boot on Gabby Agbonlahor. It wasn't a particularly bad foul, but I'm pretty sure 'waving your foot around in the air next to someone else like an idiot when you're already on a yellow' is a sending off by the rule that says you shouldn't be a [funning] idiot, and Ramires can't have many complaints about being sent off for an early bath.

*I don't think it was a red -- Ashley Cole was in covering position -- but it was definitely close.

And so at halftime, Chelsea were down a goal and a player. In one of the two matches left in the season. With the Champions League still not secured. I think I was so angry my body censored itself and refused to feel any emotion at all, leaving me rocking back and forth and mumbling 'wib wob' to myself through the interval.

David Luiz was sent out for Victor Moses in the second half, with Chelsea shuffling into a 4-2-2-1. Things went about as well as one might expect. The Blues kept inexplicably bypassing the creative players to lump the ball up to Ba, who was playing poorly and being well marshalled by a Villa back line that had no other responsibilities. We were out of ideas, and the time was ticking down.

The last thing the hosts, now in control of the match, would have wanted was for Benteke to do something stupid and even up both sides at ten. Alas for them -- joy for us -- that's exactly what he did, delivering a swift kick to Terry's ribs and earning his second booking of the night. The sending off was entirely uncontroversial, and it proved decisive.

Chelsea's midfield finally had time and space to operate, and that meant more time on the ball for Eden Hazard. It was profoundly obvious that if someone was going to break down Villa's defence, it would be him. They simply had no answer for his driving runs, and getting him in possession enabled the Blues to truly threaten for the first time.

The equaliser followed a familiar recipe. With Hazard skipping through the box, nobody followed Lampard's run from deep. The ball found its way to him, and two touches (plus a slight deflection from Nathan Baker just to annoy the anti-Lampard crowd) later Brad Guzan was beaten. The match was level. Just as importantly, Bobby Tambling had been equalled. It was the midfielder's 202nd Chelsea goal.

The next half hour was a blur. 1-1 wasn't much better than being down by a goal -- either way put unacceptable pressure on the club to win next weekend against Everton. Chelsea needed a winner. They should probably have had one in the 72nd, when Cahill's effort from a corner was blocked on the line by Ashley Westwood before briefly being forced in by Ba, but Lee Mason rather understandably waved play on and the hunt would continue.

Terry was forced off via stretcher shortly after the non-goal, having twisted his ankle badly in the Villa box. Lampard looped a free header wide. And then, just as we were losing hope, magic happened.


Once again, Hazard was too much for poor Eric Lichaj. Once he'd played the one-two with Cole, we knew what was coming. Lampard, scenting blood, evaded Fabian Delph and stabbed in the inevitable low cross to hand Chelsea an 88th minute lead and become the Blues' all-time leading scorer.

Seven minutes of injury time followed, and lived up to its name when Hazard pulled up with a hamstring problem having utterly torched a tiring Villa defence once again. It wasn't comfortable -- one goal leads never are -- but without Benteke (and with the usually-excellent Andreas Weimann practicing his star-jumping rather than getting anywhere near Cech's goal), the hosts didn't look too likely to score. And, indeed, they didn't.

Barring an utterly freak series of events, the job is now done, and Chelsea can focus on winning Wednesday's Europa League final rather than stay on edge until the end of the league campaign. Well done to all involved. Even Rafa.

* * *

PS: It was an emotional night for the hosts too as captain Stiliyan Petrov, suffering from leukemia, officially announced his retirement. Good luck, Stan.

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