When two top teams face off, the end result is typically a close, hard-fought game decided by one single moment, if at all. The theory rings true even at reserve level, where Aston Villa were the team to retain their 100% record at Griffin Park on Monday night, beating Chelsea by a single goal to nil, scored by former Blues midfielder Steve Sidwell, himself on his way back from injury.
With his squad depleted through international call-ups and injury, Brendan Rodgers shuffled the pack somewhat. Sam Hutchinson made his first competitive start at any level since November 2007 alongside captain Liam Bridcutt at centre-half, with Hilário behind them in goal. Fabio Borini started in attack for the first time, flanked by Gael Kakuta and Scott Sinclair, but with Miroslav Stoch unavailable. Villa were missing England youth internationals Nathan Delfouneso and Marc Albrighton from the team that demolished Arsenal 4-1 at Underhill, but welcomed back Stephen O’Halloran from injury in addition to Sidwell.
As one would have expected, the early exchanges were cagey, perhaps tentative, with both teams looking to play neat and tidy football built on a strong defence. The visitors looked to play off tall striker Sam Williams at every opportunity whilst Chelsea looked to get the ball wide to Sinclair and Kakuta. The first slight opening came from the exciting Frenchman, playing a nice exchange with Fabio Ferreira before mis-controlling at the crucial moment to allow Matthew Roome in to clear.
Williams perhaps might have done better for Villa when presented a chance in the inside right channel but put it wide of the net, before Elliot Parish at the other end was forced into the game’s first save. A poor corner from Sinclair wasn’t cleared well, and Kakuta played the England Under-19 winger back in on the back side. His side footed effort across goal was well parried by the visitors’ talented youngster and then hacked to safety. Hilário then had to make a save himself, again Williams finding himself with the opportunity.
The referee was beginning to dish out yellow cards at will in a competitive but never ill-tempered encounter. Sidwell, Herd and Magnay all found their names being taken for late tackles, with O’Halloran lucky to escape one himself when bringing Borini down on the edge of the box, wide on the right. Sergio Tejera whipped the ball towards the far post, almost intentionally, and it clipped the woodwork on its way out for a goal kick. It was almost identical to an effort he scored here nearly two years ago at the same end against China’s Under-23 Olympic team, and was Chelsea’s best moment of the half as they went in level at 0-0.
Rodgers made a half-time change, with Jacob Mellis returning from injury replacing Ferreira. Mellis’ drive and power made an immediate impact as Chelsea forced the issue immediately, but found a resolute Villa defence unwilling to cave into their demands. In fact, it was Villa who almost found the net shortly after the restart as Ofori-Twumasi made a hash of playing the ball facing his own goal, allowing Williams to fizz a left-footed effort towards Hilário, who stopped it easily enough. Five minutes later a free kick from wide on the left found Ciaran Clark’s head, but he could only direct it at the Portuguese stopper.
It was a refreshing change in the game’s defensive mentality, but it was unfortunately (from a Chelsea point of view) Villa making all the gains. Hutchinson found his way into the referee’s ever-growing list of yellow carded names, a minute before the hosts fell behind. Sidwell started a move in midfield, spreading the ball wide to Stieber, who cut back to deliver on his preferred left foot, finding Sidwell at the far post, having continued his run. His header wasn’t the most convincing, but it was enough to beat Hilário’s despairing palm and find the net.
Hutchinson immediately made way for Jordan Tabor, with a strong hour under his belt. Villa captain Clark was then booked for a sickening-sounding tackle on Ofori-Twumasi which fortunately left no mark on either player when on another day both could have come away from it with far more serious injuries. Chelsea probed and passed the ball deep, but any attempt at penetration was swiftly dealt with by Villa’s rock solid back four. American defender Eric Lichaj was giving Sinclair no joy on the right, whilst Kakuta was forced to drift inside to get away from O’Halloran.
With twenty minutes remaining Frank Nouble was thrown on as Chelsea went to a 4-4-2 formation, the youth team striker joining Borini in attack. Unfortunately for Rodgers, his tactical re-jig was almost immediately rendered useless as Magnay was sent off. Penalised for a debatable foul, he kicked the ball away with an act of dissent. It was enough to earn a second yellow card, and whilst some may question the need from the referee to act, it was a stupid decision from a player already on a yellow card. Another re-shuffle ensued, with Ofori-Twumasi going to centre-back, Taiwo to right-back, and a narrow three in midfield, leaving two up front as Chelsea chased the game.
Just to be consistent, Villa’s Stieber and Roome were also both booked for kicking the ball away in dissent in the five minutes following Magnay’s dismissal. Mellis also found his name taken for a late tackle, increasing the card count to nine on the night. Villa were content to let Chelsea frustrate themselves with long balls to Nouble – which he was winning, but found no help in getting the second ball. James Collins fired a half chance wide at the death with Chelsea still struggling to make offensive gains. The full time whistle signalled a much-deserved win for Aston Villa, with Parish almost a spectator in a second half where Chelsea couldn’t muster one attacking moment of note.
Yet, it’s not necessarily a reason to be despondant. With four wins from four games, Kevin McDonald’s team are the cream of this year’s crop to date, and having already beaten Stoke and Tottenham in addition to Arsenal, there is no shame in defeat, especially when the performance was by and large a decent one. Bridcutt looked steady at the back and did well against the much bigger Williams, whilst Hutchinson was strong on his return. Tom Taiwo had the confidence and experience of someone fresh off professional football on loan at Port Vale, but ahead of him everything was inconsistent and lacking in ideas. Borini deserves creditable mention for a night of hard work and hard running, and a display of strength and will that belied his earliest performances in England.
Chelsea’s next Reserve outing is on Monday November 3rd, as they host Stoke at Griffin Park. CFCnet will, as ever, have extensive coverage of the fixture.
Team: Hilário, Ofori-Twumasi, Bridcutt (c), Hutchinson (Tabor 60), Magnay, Taiwo, Tejera (Nouble 70), Ferreira (Mellis 45), Kakuta, Sinclair, Borini
Booked: Magnay, Hutchinson, Mellis
Sent Off: Magnay
Match photos can be found on Dan’s website