Chelsea returned from the West Midlands yesterday with their Premier League lead dismantled and their line-up dismembered, as a damaging 0-1 loss rendered the Blues slaves to their destiny, as they ended the day six points above Manchester City, having played three matches more, and with their manager holding his tongue, as Jose Mourinho unusually refused to enter into discussion of the game’s flashpoints for fear of “big trouble”.
An improvised Fabian Delph flick that capped a thrusting counter-attack – one of few offered by the home side – proved enough for his team to claim all three points, despite their never enjoying any semblance of control over proceedings, even once handed the numerical advantage by a referee who seems to have it in for the West Londoners.
Chris Foy has now dismissed six Chelsea players in his last eight Blues matches and the guests’ title hopes were further dampened by his punitive measures yesterday, with red cards handed to Willian and Ramires putting both out of next Saturday’s key derby fixture against championship rivals Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho himself was sent to the stands for the final seconds after entering the field to protest at the actions of Villa striker Gabriel Agbonlahor, already substituted, whose similar encroachment to shove Ramires, following the Brazilian’s reckless lunge that briefly caused chaos along the touchline, somehow went unpunished.
This alarming reversal was all the more troubling on viewing of the critical statistics. Most poignant were the 15 attempts at goal, of which just two were on target, underlining the primary flaw in Mourinho’s master-plan and oft-proffered excuse for lack of outright league leadership. As suggested on television and social media the world over again on Saturday, these are the games expected to be settled by a title-winning squad’s talismanic striker.
As hard as Fernando Torres worked and as bright as he often seems as he flickers in and out of these contests, it appears unlikely the Spaniard will ever be that man for this sort of occasion and the sooner the Chelsea hierarchy can remedy the problem at the spearhead of their attack the better.
During a first half dominated by the away side, it felt as though the Blues were a mere moment of final-third composure from converting their command of possession and territory into supremacy over the scorers.
A blue blur seeped between Villa lines and even made the net bulge after 40 minutes when Nemanja Matic bundled home at the back post following a set-piece, only for the officials to correctly disallow the goal for a handball by the Serbian.
A visibly tiring Hazard continued his rich vein of form with another incisive display alongside the restored Willian and a reinvigorated Oscar, providing both the subtlety and flair to complement countryman Ramires’ less orthodox qualities.
Such instinctive approach play almost accounted for the game’s pivotal moment when the midfielder burst through the centre before being cynically thwarted by defender Joe Bennett (in for the ineligible Ryan Bertrand per the Chelsea full-back’s loan agreement). However, Foy deemed the foul worthy of no more than a caution and parity remained as the interval quickly approached.
As it turned out, the game-defining phase arrived midway through the second period, when Mourinho chose to replace the increasingly ineffectual Oscar, rather than the already booked Willian, moments before the latter was sent off for a second yellow card that was softer than a 99 without the flake.
Prior to that, with their backline rarely threatened, Chelsea’s creative forces were once more granted the platform upon which to fully express themselves and Villa Park seemed to be theirs for the taking, as the endless running of Torres continually tested the high line of the Villa rearguard, if not quite the home goal.
But the trip along the A4 is traditionally an arduous one for the Blues and the longer the game remained goalless the more ominously the spectre of upsets past began to loom.
And so it came to pass that the better side lost here, as by-then-10-man Chelsea were dispossessed on half-way thanks to a hospital pass from Ramires to Branislav Ivanovic, who sold himself in trying to regain the ball, leaving the entire right flank exposed. One meek effort at a tackle from the otherwise impressive Matic later and substitute Marc Albrighton was given the freedom of the Midlands to pull back to Delph, whose innovative finish represented a contribution of rare quality from his side in their opponents’ third.
All hell broke loose late on as Ramires launched himself into a challenge he had no right to contest to leave his manager to fend off accusations of ill-discipline and his team-mates short on numbers for what could be this season’s decisive match in the race for automatic Champions League places next weekend.