I don't need to rehash just how bad the season to date has been, so I won't. It is, however, safe to say that when Jose Mourinho is claiming he won't be fired for a mid-table finish with the defending champions that not all has gone according to plan for Chelsea, and consequently it is also safe to say that it was (and is) extremely important that the Blues re-rail themselves as soon as possible.
If you want to get a team back on track, hosting one of the league's most tragicomic sides in Tim Sherwood's Aston Villa of Great Courage and Heart™ is a pretty decent way to do it. So too is shuffling the deck and injecting the squad with new blood, although the absence of Nemanja Matic, Oscar and Eden Hazard raised more eyebrows than even Carlo Ancelotti might have found usual. With a perfectly timed international break providing some welcome distance between the hopeful now and the woeful loss against Southampton, the stars were aligned for the Blues to show some sign -- any sign! -- of life.
Two quite silly goals and three points later, I suppose we can say that that's exactly what happened. Compared to the rampaging, solid Chelsea we used to know, today's performance looked massively undercooked; compared to the steaming pile of misery served up for much of the season, however, it was a welcome, positive change. The Blues kept a clean sheet and earned a victory without having to resort to any skullduggery* to do so. Nobody's going to give us bonus points for style, but looking like a solid team capable of exploiting mistakes and winning some games is a decent first step in putting things right.
*Skullduggery happened nonetheless, because Diego Costa can't survive without skullduggering, but it wasn't the focal point of the match like during the win against Arsenal.
For a little while at the beginning it felt like the changes and the break had achieved very little. Villa -- VILLA! -- were fairly comfortably on top, carving out chances from both sides far too easily. Watching Cesar Azpilicueta struggle to prevent Jack Graelish from finding space was annoying but understandable; staring goggly-eyed as Alan Hutton merrily demolished Premier League debutant Baba Rahman was another thing entirely. The defence looked vulnerable and poised to concede, while at the other end the best we'd conjured up was a Ruben Loftus-Cheek break which got nowhere because the youngster chose the wrong pass.
This phase of the match climaxed just after the half-hour mark when Jordan Ayew got the better of Azpilicueta on the Chelsea right and played a perfect low cross in for Rudy Gestede. On another day, perhaps, the big striker's first-time finish might have beaten Asmir Begovic and found the back of the net. Today he managed to beat the crossbar as well. On another day, perhaps, that chance might have marked the beginning of a Villa onslaught. Today it was the last action they took as a coherent side.
Diego Costa was making his first domestic appearance since sending the red half of north London into conniptions last month, had spent the first thirty minutes working hard without much to show for it, but in the immediate aftermath of Gestede's miss the big striker was handed a goal on a plate. The direct provider was Willian, who added a first assist to his four goals this season. Real credit, however, must go to Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who contrived to turn a routine clearance into a hospital ball for walking mishap Joleon Lescott. The pass was nicked, Costa was set up six yards out with an open goal ... and despite the way the year's gone so far it would have beggared belief had he missed.
Throwing away their bright start seemed to take the wind so far out of the visitors' sails that they got sucked inexorably backwards. Sherwood managed to rally his side during the interval, but their half-hearted efforts at getting back in the game merely opened the door for Chelsea to grab their second.
Ramires, who was his usual rambunctious self in midfield, opened Villa up with a thunderous challenge just inside their half, leaving Cesc Fabregas to take advantage of their momentary discombobulation with a floated pass to Costa in the box. The striker's first touch let him down and forced him to check back rather than shoot, but when Costa attempted to square to Willian, Hutton intervened, turning the ball into his own net with all the grace and poise you might expect from a bald Scottish man named Alan.
If Villa were down for the count at 1-0, 2-0 represented a complete obliteration of hope. Sad passes were passed sadly, sad corners were taken sadly and sad substitutions were made sadly. With Chelsea hardly about to push for more goals and risk opening themselves up, the game therefore assumed an aspect of over-ness which gave the remaining 35 minutes an unreal, sepia tone.
There was at least a little colour in Diego Costa's amusing clash with Micah Richards and then his subsequent un-wrestling match with Ashley Westwood, but not even his random acts of Costa-ing managed to imbue the final stages with any excitement. Which is, of course, exactly the point. With a 2-0 cushion, excitement mostly comes in the form of terror, and a beleaguered Mourinho embraced the boredom like a long-lost and much-cherished friend.
Full time came after a period of blissfully fear-free ennui. It wasn't great viewing, for those who watch football to be entertained rather than the damned majority who can't tear themselves away, but the rare victory should be enough to excuse any lack of flair.
In the future, we'll probably want more. But diabolically monotonous semi-competence is a start.