Leaders Chelsea maintained their firm grasp over the English Premier League after a hard fought 1-2 win at Villa Park. Goal shy Aston Villa finally ended their long drought after Jores Okore had equalized just after the start of the second half, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Blues eking out a massive 3 points from this fixture.
Villa had failed to score since just before Christmas- a running stretching to over 7 games. Paul Lambert dropped Christian Benteke to the bench and opted to start with only Gabby Agbonlahor up front in an effort to change their fortunes. Chelsea, meanwhile, started their second consecutive game without the dynamic duo of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, whose firepower they seriously missed last week against Manchester City.
It seemed like they could do just as well without them, when Eden Hazard opened the scoring only eight minutes into the game. The Belgian coolly finished off a lovely pass by Willian after Oscar broke down the left to expose Aston Villa’s fragile back four. The Chelsea fans made their emotions felt- their singing reverberating around a stunned Villa Park.
For a team that hasn’t scored for 10 hours of playing time, Aston Villa responded remarkably, finding spaces on either side of the Chelsea midfield to press forward. Agbonlahor headed one over the bar, Cissokho looked menacing on the left flank. Thibaut Courtois looked surprisingly shaky in the Chelsea goal- the ball slipping from his grasp on multiple occasions. Chelsea too had their chances, but Didier Drogba was caught offside twice. The Ivorian was solely to blame for many missed opportunities, as he let down his teammates by failing to finish some fluid Chelsea counterattacks.
Ashley Westwood and new signing Carles Gil were providing the spark for Villa and it looked as though the much needed goal would come soon. In the 33rd minute, Ramires found his way into the referee’s book for a challenge on Fabian Delph. Sent off on both his last two visits to this stadium, the Brazilian now needed to play safe. Villa had a good opportunity to score after a melee in the Chelsea box, but were denied by a resolute Gary Cahill. Despite the intent, Villa were unable to equalize in the opening 45 minutes.
Few minutes into the second half though, they found what they were looking for- Okore turning in a corner via a header in the 48th minute. Villa Park went into raptures. You could see how much this goal meant to the struggling team and its fans.
Needing to reassert themselves, Chelsea tried harder. The absence of Fabregas and Costa was there to see, but an energetic Willian embarked on some nippy runs- one minute he was at the back defending off a Villa corner- while in the next he was scrapping with the opposition defenders trying to get some space. He got two identical shots down the left hand side of goal, but each went beyond the goal past a relieved Brad Guzan.
Didier Drogba missed another good chance, clearly off the pace. Chelsea really needed some inspiration, and manager Jose Mourinho threw on Loic Remy in the 64th minute in an effort to freshen things up. Whether it was due to the Frenchman’s introduction or not, Chelsea immediately scored. Azpilicueta’s found a way down the left flank passed Okore and managed to shoot, the deflection off Guzan falling to Branislav Ivanovic who popped in with a half volley into the top corner.
His team’s lead restored, Mourinho opted to shut down the game- bringing in John Obi Mikel for Oscar. A few minutes later, new signing Juan Cuadadro made his debut by coming on for Willian.
Paul Lambert also tried to get Villa back into the game- taking off Tom Cleverley for Scott Sinclair and also bringing on Joe Cole, both former Chelsea boys. Neither could make a difference though, as the game wound out to a slow end. Chelsea were content with their slender advantage, Villa were too tired to make a difference to the score with their feeble attempts.
It turned to be a big, big win for the Blues. Their nearest rivals, Manchester City, slipped at home to Hull, drawing 1-1. Chelsea have thus increased their lead to 7 points and have taken a giant step towards lifting the trophy in May. For Villa, they can take heart from their performance against the top team in England and look to rebuild their season from this point.