The Guus Hiddink era at Chelsea commenced with a hard fought, and at times stylish win against Aston Villa at Villa Park, our first win there in 10 years. There was a throwback to the Mourinho days through the manner in which Chelsea grafted their way to a 1-0 away win, however the winning goal scored in the first half by Nicolas Anelka, was nothing short of poetic in it’s execution and deliverance.
Stopping short of springing any selection surprises, Hiddink maintained a midfield triangle of Mikel, Ballack and Lampard, with a fluid and mobile front three of Drogba, Kalou and Anelka, with the latter nominally starting on the left and Kalou on the right. Paulo Ferreira made a rare appearance in defence, deputising for the suspended Ashley Cole at left back, whilst Alex was preferred to Ivanovic as Terry’s central defensive partner.
As is often the case, the first half began with lots of huffing and puffing from Chelsea, but very little pressure on the opposition goalkeeper. Looking menacing in black, Chelsea knocked the ball around with confidence early on, a desire to impress and a new found hunger engendered within the side.
When Chelsea took a 19th minute lead, nobody was surprised. Nonetheless, the goal itself was a result of sublime craftsmanship, impeccable technique and precise timing. Lampard showed wonderful skill to weave into a non-existent gap between two Villa players, before sliding in Anelka with the outside of his boot. The French striker showed his usual turn of pace to race onto the pass before dinking the ball over the advancing Friedel with the minimum of fuss. It was his 21st goal of the season in all competitions, a statistic continuing to make a mockery of his doubters. The goal and it’s creation though, oozed class.
Lampard’s first half was nothing short of exceptional, England’s finest midfielder showing poise and accuracy with his passing, as well as the intellect of a man born to dominate matches from midfield. Alongside him, Ballack was understated in his brilliance, supporting Lampard, but showing his own kind of dominance in his passing and vision. He, along with the outstanding Mikel, were two that exemplified the recovered spirit and desire of this Chelsea side.
That said, Villa came very close to an equaliser, though not before Chelsea were denied a second by a flying Friedel, who saved John Terry’s close range header from a Lampard corner. However, ten minutes before half time, a free kick was wrongly given to Villa, 20 yards out, just to the left of goal.
Ashley Young struck it, curling it over the wall and onto the crossbar, with Cech static. The rebound was headed wide by Emile Heskey, when the least he could have done was hit the target. 1-0 to Chelsea at the break.
Terry came close again at the start of the second half, his header cleared off the line by Stylian Petrov. Agbonglahor’s pace was causing Alex problems though, and the English striker forced a sharp save from Cech at his near post soon after.
On 55 minutes, the ineffective Kalou was replaced by Deco, who would continue to play in the front three, though with a tendency to cut inside and create a midfield four. Villa had their tails up, and really began to test Chelsea’s resilience. Barry’s rasping drive was well saved by Cech, before John Carew replaced Curtis Davies in a very attacking substitution by Martin O’Neill.
Villa began to throw the kitchen sink at Chelsea, the big strikers Heskey and Carew attempting to make contact with every long ball aimed at them. Cech stood firm to save a Barry shot that was straight at him, but hit with venom.
However, Villa fizzled out as the match drew towards it’s conclusion, with Bosingwa booked for time wasting in the process. As Hiddink looked to tie the match up, the ever-popular Juliano Belletti replaced Drogba, who had worked incredibly hard for the cause throughout.
There was still time for a spark of entertainment though, as a wonderful piece of skill from Deco taking him past three Villa defenders. His cut back was crunched goalwards by Ballack, only an acrobatic save from Friedel denying Chelsea their second poetic goal of the match.
Chelsea negotiated stoppage time with ease and as it were, Anelka’s first league goal since December sealed the victory that takes us back above Villa, to 3rd in the league. The spirit and tenacity shown by the players bodes well for the midweek visit of Juventus, and the return of everyone’s favourite uncle, Claudio Ranieri.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuéllar, Knight, Davies (Carew 70), L Young; Milner, Petrov, Barry (c), A Young; Agbonlahor, Heskey.
Manager Martin O’Neill
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Alex, Terry (c), Ferreira; Ballack, Mikel, Lampard; Kalou (Deco 54), Drogba (Belletti 90), Anelka.
Manager Guus Hiddink
Referee M Halsey