The first game of a busy Boxing Day schedule saw Chelsea host Aston Villa for a 1pm kick-off at Stamford Bridge. Would Chelsea suffer their traditional Christmas hangover or would Jose lay to rest the ghost of Christmas past with a victory and another vital three points?
With Carvalho and Parker joining Huth in the treatment room, Gallas returned to centre of defence alongside Terry with Bridge and Ferreira completing the back four. Cech again started in goal. The rest of the team was unchanged from the Norwich match with Tiago, Lampard and Makalele starting in the middle, Duff and Robben wide with Gudjohnsen getting the nod ahead of Drogba up front. Smertin returned to the bench in place of Parker.
The game started brightly with Robben looking an early threat, taking on Delaney and De La Cruz on the left and going past both to get deep into the area, only to send in a cross that was cleared by the Villa defence. In the eleventh minute Duff picked up the ball wide right and then took the ball past Barry, cutting inside on the edge of the area and unleashing a shot at Sorensen’s far post that swerved and wobbled just wide of the post.
Makelele was his usual busy self in front of the defence, blocking from Hendrie in the thirteenth minute after Gallas overplayed outside the area and lost the ball to Angel who crossed back for Hendrie to shoot. If Hendrie could have matched his early season form, Villa could have been 3-0 up with 25 minutes gone, but thankfully for Chelsea, he failed to really trouble Cech once.
In the 29th minute, Makalele again won the ball in the Chelsea half and gave the ball to Lampard who played a clever ball and released Robben. Arjen ran at the Villa defence and in drawing Gareth Barry towards him, was able to slip the ball to Duff in space and advancing on the right. Duff cut inside Luke Ridgewell and hit a stinging shot past Thomas Sorensen from ten yards, the sixth time in ten games that Duff has opened the scoring. 1-0
Robben had an effort cleared off the line in the 36th minute after clever play from Eidur, Tiago and Lampard. Tiago crossed low and Gudjohnsen dummied and stepped over the ball allowing it to run through to Lampard on the left side of the Villa area. Lampard’s back heel found Robben who shot at the far post beating Sorensen, only for it to be cleared off the line by Delaney.
With two minutes remaining until half time, Terry sent a free header wide from a good Robben corner as Chelsea looked to double their lead before the break. It wasn’t to be as the half ended messy with a booking for Robben for a foul on Ridgewell and a late Villa free kick needing a save from Cech after everyone else had missed it. David O’Leary was forced to introduce Nobby Solano in the final moments of the half after Delaney went off injured.
Soon after the restart Gallas sent a diving header wide after Duff sent in a delightful ball, just too high for Tiago, into the area after side stepping Angel. Chelsea started to take control and Villa responded with some cynical challenges on Robben and Gudjohnsen to halt play when Chelsea countered. Solano and Ridgewell received yellow cards for their efforts and Solano also received a none too friendly warning from Terry to watch his challenges in future.
Gudjohnsen was agonisingly close and really should have done better in the 64th minute when played through by Lampard. Eidur just managed to get a shot in but Sorensen got enough on it to divert it wide. Gudjohnsen was to play no further part in the match after being subbed by Mourinho with Drogba replacing him.
Tiago was booked shortly after for kicking the ball away in response to a decision awarded against him. The referee was frustrating for most of the match and seemed intent on calling every minor offence. Six players were booked in total, three from each side but there weren’t many bad challenges of note and in calling nearly every decision and not playing the advantage seemed to spoil the flow of the game. Chelsea attacked without any real fluidity or rhythm that has been the hallmark of their game in recent weeks, and with the spark missing in the final third had to rely on our defence to hold on to our record of three goals conceded at home all season. With quarter of an hour to go, Robben burst down the left and hit a hard ball across the six yard box that Drogba just couldn’t get anything on. It was to be our last decent effort of the match. Smertin came on for Duff in the 79th minute and Chelsea switched to the diamond formation and O’Leary switched to 4-4-2 after bringing on Luke Moore for Hendrie. Terry was booked shortly after for going in hard on Whittingham in the centre circle, retribution perhaps for an earlier foul on Robben minutes earlier. Glen Johnson replaced Robben late on and Chelsea switched to a back five to shore up the final minutes of the game.
Villa pressed until the final whistle but were restricted to shooting from distance and never really looked like getting back in the game once going behind. Mourinho was impressed by the visitors and said: “They were without some important players and I think they did a great job – but I also have to credit my players for their hard work. When you are fighting to be champions you need to fight with your sleeves up to get points” He added: “We try to play good football and score goals. I can understand the supporters want to see Duff and Robben on the pitch and scoring goals. But we won 1-0 in a difficult situation, playing with heart and taking the points”
With only our third Boxing Day victory in 16 years and at a time when it can so often go wrong for Chelsea, we’ve made a good start. Let’s hope we can keep it up against Portsmouth and in 2005, our centenary year. We’re half way through the season, five points clear and on course for our first championship since 1955.
Top of the league? We’re having a laugh!
Chelsea: Cech, Ferreira, Gallas, Terry (c), Bridge; Tiago, Makelele, Lampard; Duff (Smertin 79), Gudjohnsen (Drogba 66), Robben (Johnson 89).
Aston Villa: Sorensen, Delaney (Solano 45), Mellberg (c), Ridgwell, Barry; De La Cruz, Hendrie (L Moore 79), Berson, Davis, Whittingham, Angel.
Referee Peter Walton.