It wasn't pretty, it wasn't easy; hardly convincing and far from straightforward, but three points are what matter at the end of the day and three points are what Chelsea got today versus Aston Villa. Even if they had to rely on a fair bit of luck to do so.
Both teams entered the Stamford Bridge arena high on confidence: Chelsea, following their easy 2-0 opening win, still enjoying their second honeymoon with José Mourinho; Aston Villa, following their shock win on the weekend over the red half of North London, buoyant and hopeful of better results than last season. Nine months ago, the boys of Villa were summarily spanked 8-0 in this fixture; today, the men of Villa were more than ready to put up a tactical and a physical fight. Just like against Hull City however, Chelsea would start well and take the lead just a few minutes in.
The Oscar - Hazard combination worked well on the weekend and it was the two of them who'd also unlock Villa very early on. While Oscar did fade after the goal, his pass to release the Belgian was scrumptious and left the high line of the visitors scrambling to get back into position. As Eden Hazard worked his magic in the left corner and drove towards goal, Stamford Bridge rose with anticipation. That Hazard's cross(shot?) was palmed by Brad Guzan onto Antonio Luna's chest from where it rebounded into the back of the net made no difference in the ensuing celebrations; Chelsea's opener once again created by the young man challenged by Mourinho to take his game to the next level this year. So far, so good.
Six minutes and one up already, yet thoughts of Chelsea running rampant dissipated rather quickly. The initial promise of the lineup sheet - Demba Ba supported by the vaunted trio of Hazard, Oscar, and Juan Mata - failed to materialize as Chelsea were intent on recycling possession conservatively with their defenders and the double pivot of Frank Lampard and Ramires, while looking to ping long balls up over their own midfield and the Villa line. The plan perhaps would've worked better if Ba had been able to actually stay onside more often. While it was commendable - and a great tactical contrast to Fernando Torres - that he looked to run towards rather than away from goal, the five offsides called on him (all correctly) created some discontent among the supporters.
While not exactly scintillating, Chelsea's long-ball gameplan was working. Ramires was single-handedly snuffing out all Villa threats down the middle (and sometimes out wide, too) and combined with his passing rate and style will no doubt draw comparisons with Claude Makélélé once again. Lofty, to be sure, but it's undeniable that the freshly-reinstated Brazilian international has had an impressive start to his career under José. With the visitors posing little threat, Chelsea were able to keep the ball and stretch the defense with Mata and Hazard wide, although the former looked decidedly below par.
Half-time reports speaking to the ease of Chelsea's passage where already written when Aston Villa pulled level, their goal coming from Christian Benteke with the final kick of the half. That he was left criminally unmarked despite posing the most obvious and biggest threat of all was rather unfortunate, although it came as a knock-on effect from Gabby Agbonlahor getting loose on the left wing and Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, and John Terry all scrambling to cover for each other. Take nothing away from the big man's finish either, which left Petr Cech with very little chance of stopping it at his near post.
So 1-1 at the break, undoubtedly leading to some harsh words in the dressing room from no more Mister Nice Mourinho. Although he made no changes, his Blues did play noticeably better early in the second half despite eschewing all semblance of width and stacking the Three Musketeers practically on top of each other. The plan would've worked to perfection even, had Hazard not snatched at the ball when open at the top of the box. The hilarity of his squibbed kick chortling harmlessly wide would be matched by a similar Lampard effort later on.
With about a third of the match left, Mourinho made a proactive double-change, bringing on André Schürrle to provide slightly more natural width than Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku to provide some non-bumbling at the top. Unsurprisingly, the changes worked. Nobody in the Villa backline had even a hope of containing Lukaku. While also working back to help out the defense, he tripled Ba's shot output in just half the time. And it was from the free kick that he won (Ron Vlaar's pull being called back after the initial advantage) that Chelsea would retake the lead: Lampard's beautiful curling ball finding the unmarked Ivanovic near the penalty spot, the angry man making no mistake in powering the header home on 73 minutes. Ivanovic may have been offside, and it would not be the only time he'd get a bit lucky.
Except for the one second where he scored, Christian Benteke was marshaled quite effectively in the first half by the back four of Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, and Cole as he tried to gain advantage against either of Chelsea's two central defenders. In the second half, the Belgian focused his efforts more on Ivanovic, their almighty tussle fanning emotions and sharpening elbows. It was with the latter that Bane would catch Benteke in the throat as they battled for position. Luckily, he escaped with just a yellow card and then, a few minutes later, with just a warning for a high boot (wherein Benteke was also booked for the initial contact).
The fact that Ivanovic finished out the full 90 would not prove to be our only dollop of good fortune. John Terry's flailing arm clearly made contact with the ball as he rose to head clear from a free kick in added-on time, yet referee Kevin Friend's whistle remained mute. One could argue that Terry was fouled just ahead of the handball, if we're looking for some sort of shaky explanation. Adding to Paul Lambert's sense of injustice will no doubt be a pair of wonderful Petr Cech saves, most crucially from Andi Weimann with just four minutes to go. Cech was rarely called into action, but once again proved his usual excellence when needed.
In the end, Chelsea eked out the three points in a match that last year would've no doubt finished a draw, or worse. With six points from six, Chelsea are looking down at everybody else in the Premier League table. Winning: that's the Mourinho effect I suppose, and if it weren't just the second match of the young season, I'd say something along the lines "the hallmark of champions" as well.
Alas, it is just the second match with a crucial test to follow on Monday away to Manchester United. But at least now we know who's surely our first choice center forward, right?