Things are definitely changing down at the Bridge. If not invincible, we have suddenly become incredibly consistent. Not only do we not seem to lose that often — ten without defeat in the league — but we do not let many goals in either. Another clean sheet means that we have conceded just three goals in that unbeaten run. That two of those three goals meant we dropped points is a source of frustration, but not one of anger.
That we now sing a few songs for players other than the obvious one or two is a welcome change. Willie Gallas found his name doing the rounds a few times as did man of the match Frank Lampard. Lumpie does, I feel, warrant a special mention here. He has had his doubters since joining the Blues, but his form of late has been devastating. Yesterday he basically controlled the midfield on his own, but also managed to drop back and support the attack when needed. Without a doubt, he should be in the England side on this form.
Then there came the biggest shock of the afternoon. No, not that Villa lost — they seem to make a career of that at the moment — but chants of “Ranieri’s blue army” started to do the rounds and gained in vocal support the longer that the game went on. There have been pockets of supporters singing his name for some while, but this game saw a large chunk of the stadium joining in. As one, together with all our hearts, the name of Ranieri filled the wet and misty afternoon. After so long as a Blues supporter, I should always expect the unexpected — this still came as a shock though. At last we can see why he is so highly regarded as a coach and we like it, we like it very much.
Villa, for all their awful away form, started head and shoulders the better team. For large parts of the first thirty minutes, they had us firmly on the back foot and could easily have had a two or three-goal lead. Mellberg hit the bar with a well struck half volley, Hadji fired an effort right across the face of goal and Lee Hendrie (having just finished his homework) saw his effort deflect off of Soxy for a corner. We did, finally, start to take control, with Zenden being involved in most of the better efforts. After beating the defender out wide, a beautiful ball into the box (were you watching Jesper?) saw JFH head high, wide and not so handsome. Then a quickly-taken Zenden free-kick went inches wide with the Villa players still lining up their wall.
Three minutes before half time the breakthrough came — last season’s partnership of Eidur and JFH working to great effect when a perfect ball through the Villa defence from Jimmy saw Eidur run on and place his shot across the Villa ’keeper into the bottom corner of the net. Time to celebrate as, for a few brief minutes, we went top of the league.
The second half was one way traffic with lots of chances and some sparkling passing. The lead was almost doubled straight after the break, but Eidur saw his effort saved well by the Villa ’keeper. From the resulting corner, Willie Gallas saw his header bounce of the top of the bar. It surely was only going to be a matter of time before the second came. When it did, in slightly bizarre circumstances, it was down to Lumpy, whose efforts certainly deserved it. A long-range cross sat up beautifully for Eidur to nod the ball past the goalie. Eidur failed to get anything on it though and the ’keeper, totally distracted, allowed the ball to drift straight into the net.
We took the foot off the pedal as the game wore on and but for Carlo might well have paid the ultimate price. Two stops at the back end of the game, the second being worth the entrance money on its own, made sure that Villa were sent home pointless and goalless.
We do look — and have for some time — like a team. That we should do is not rocket science, but it is something that has been lacking for far too long. The alleged comments of JFH after the game, if true, should not be allowed to spoil that. This could turn out to be a very, very happy Christmas.
Chelsea line-up: Cudicini — Melchiot, Gallas, Terry, Le Saux — Stanic (Gronkjaer, 54), Lampard, Morris, Zenden (Babayaro, 66) — Hasselbaink (Zola, 77), Gudjohnsen
Subs not used: de Goey, Ferrer