Chelsea had to settle for a 0-0 draw at Villa Park as the home side’s dogged defence denied the champions to chance to go 7 points clear.

In truth Gerard Houllier’s side should’ve been in front in the opening minutes as Stephen Ireland clipped narrowly past Petr Cech’s when in one-on-one before the big keeper pulled off a fine save to deny John Carew.

The Blues, blunted in attack by the absence of Didier Drogba as well as Frank Lampard, struggled to muster any clear chances in the first half, with long spells of possession failing to produce any notable opportunities.

Instead, Villa looked the much more likely on the counter attack, with only a heroic block by Branislav Ivanovic preventing Ireland firing home from the edge of the box.

It was the first time the champions had started a game without both Drogba and Lampard for 11 months, and removing a combo that contributed 52 league goals last season was always going to have an impact.

The one positive the visitors could take from the opening half was the amount of possession and quality of passing.

Ramires continues to improve, and the transformation of John Mikel Obi beggars belief. The big Nigerian again demonstrated a Makelele-like calmness in tidying up at the back as Villa pressed early on.

One disappointment was the Premier League debut of Gael Kakuta. The young Frenchmen never really got going and was out-muscled too easily at times. He also wasted two decent chances, before being withdrawn at the interval. But at just 19 and on his first league start, the promising youngster has plenty of chances to come.

The second half was much improved from Ancelotti’s side, with Chelsea taking it up several gears and refusing to let Villa out of their own half.

Malouda stung the hands of Friedel 20 yards, whilst a trademark drop of the shoulder from Anelka allowed him to also test the American.

However it wasn’t until the closing stages that both sides created their best chances, as the game became stretched.

Firstly, Ivanovic slammed a header against the post having found space at the near post from a Malouda corner.

The hosts responded minutes later when young defender Ciaran Clark flicking an Ashley Young free kick onto the upright.

But the match winning chance fell to Nicolas Anelka when, as injury time loomed, the Frenchman headed Ashley Cole’s pinpoint cross into the ground and onto the bar.

There was still time for one last moment of drama when Nigel Reo-Coker, having stolen the ball from Josh McEachran, fired wide of the post as he bore down on goal.

So, it ultimately meant the points were shared, and given that Chelsea have only won once at Villa Park in 10 years, it can be argued that this was a point gained rather than 2 dropped. The return to action of Jose Bosingwa after a year out was also a fantastic sight for Chelsea fans.

Aston Villa: Friedel, Warnock, Dunne (Clark 13), Beye, Collins, Downing, Young, Ireland (Sidwell 84), Petrov, Reo-Coker, Carew (Delfouneso 74)

Chelsea: Cech, Ivanovic, Cole, Ferreira (Bosingwa 75), Terry, Essien, Ramires (McEachran 76), Mikel, Malouda, Anelka, Kakuta (Zhirkov 46)

Man of the Match: Branislav Ivanovic