Villa Park is not a fun place to play. Jose Mourinho had never won there; no Premier League-winning Chelsea team had picked up all three points in front of the Holte End either. The former was rectified today, and a big hurdle towards the second was ... well, it wasn't emphatically cleared, but progress was made nonetheless.
Despite Aston Villa's poor form this
month year decade, I don't think anyone was expecting a routine win here. Since demolishing Swansea three weeks ago, Chelsea have been on a patchy run, losing to Bradford in the FA Cup and with the lone victory in four matches coming in extra time against Liverpool. It hadn't been bad, precisely, but it had been somewhat less than easy growing.
Let me relate a broad paraphrasing of Past Graham's thoughts during the early stages of this game:
Nevermind that today's hosts were in serious danger of relegation. Nevermind that they hadn't scored a lead goal since the birth of new signing Juan Cuadrado. This is Chelsea at Villa Park, and we're in for a fi-
-oh wait Eden Hazard's just scored.
The Blues kicked off as though they were prepared to brutally destroy Paul Lambert and everyone he cared for, keeping the ball well and driving forward with intent whenever Villa dared to employ any sort of press. And within eight minutes, they'd taken the lead, with Oscar harrying his way into possession on the right side of Brad Guzan's area before feeding Willian to set up the killer ball.
Willian drew out the defence before slotting a pass into Hazard's feet, and the Belgian flicked in under virtually no pressure. Chelsea were 1-0 up, and to make matters even better Didier Drogba had bulldozed match referee Neil Swarbrick a few minutes before the opener. For a blissful moment or two it seemed as though we might have a rare comfortable match on our hands.
But as it turned out the halcyonic spell was just a prelude to the real match, which promptly turned into what we were all used to. Swarbrick barely had anything like control of the match, Chelsea were getting pushed back with zero quarter given for the difference in quality between the squads and although we attacked intermittently it was generally without much threat.
Yes, Oscar had a shot well saved by Guzan, Ramires was foiled by a well-timed tackle from Ciaran Clark and Gary Cahill had a shot blocked by something that looked an awful lot like a flailing arm, but as we drew near halftime it began to look increasingly likely that Villa might be able to snatch a goal. Carles Gil in particular was looking dangerous, and with Thibaut Courtois still unable to catch the ball cleanly, there was something approaching terror whenever the hosts drove at our defence.
Which make our play immediately after the break all the sadder. Nemanja Matic coughed up possession in the defensive third with a terrible pass. Ramires failed to bring the ball out when he had a chance. John Terry's headed clearance went all of ten yards and straight to a claret shirt. Drogba blocked a corner as a first man but couldn't direct his header anywhere but straight back to Gil ... and from the resultant cross whichever combination of Oscar and Branislav Ivanovic were supposed to be marking Jores Okore simply forgot to do so.
For Villa, it was goal drought over. For Chelsea, it was lead over.
The team needed to respond and thankfully they soon perked up. Perhaps that had something to do with the introduction of Loïc Rémy on the 60-minute mark, who certainly asked more questions of the Villa defenders than did Drogba in his hour on the pitch. Fortunately the Blues had long enough to find a winner, and it eventually arrived via a rather unlikely source.
Cesar Azpilicueta and Okore got into a bit of a mess inside the Villa box, with the left back and the big centre half playing what amounted to a backheel flick-header one-two to set the former up to float a cross over the middle of the area. Fabian Delph attempted a clearance and failed, leaving the ball to fall for Ivanovic. Naturally, he tried a left-footed half-volley, which rather than decapitate some unsuspecting member of the crowd screamed past Guzan and into the top corner to make it 2-1 Chelsea.
More substitutions were made, with John Obi Mikel coming in to solidify possession and new signing Juan Cuadrado arriving to reinforce the right flank. The later was hugely impressive, winning a corner with his first touch and acting as a superb shield for Ivanovic -- a tactically astute performance from a player we might have been expecting to make a less disciplined first impression.
Villa tried to restore parity to the last, but we were far better at keeping the ball at the end of the second half than the first, Jose Mourinho employed as many dark arts as he had at his disposal to ensure that the five minutes of stoppage time signalled passed without danger. A 2-1 win doesn't look impressive, but considering how poor Chelsea have been at getting late winners this season -- and with Manchester City dropping points at home against Hull -- Ivanovic's goal felt huge.
Seven points clear. Fourteen left to play. We're in very, very good shape right now.